I beg to move,
That the Licence and Agreement between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the British Broadcasting Corporation (Cmnd. 8233), dated 2 April 1981, a copy of which was laid before this House on 27 April, be approved.
The BBC's licence and agreement is the instrument by which I license the corporation under section 1 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949 to use wireless telegraphy for the purposes of its broadcasting services and for related purposes. The licence and agreement deals with a number of other matters, including the financing of the BBC's external services by grant-in-aid. Because of this, and because the licence and agreement has the character of an agreement, it is a contract which, under Standing Order No. 96, is not binding until it has been approved by a resolution of this House. The licence and agreement which is now before the House was concluded on 2 April and I am this evening inviting the House to approve it.
The instrument which continues the existence of the BBC as a body corporate and regulates its constitution is the corporation's Royal charter. As is customary for these occasions, I have laid before the House the draft of the Royal charter for the continuance of the corporation. for which I intend to apply. The draft charter will extend the life of the BBC from 31 July this year, when under the present charter it expires, until 31 December 1996. This is the date to which last Session's Broadcasting Act extended the life of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.
There are two principal themes which I should like to address in my remarks this evening—that of continuity and that of change. There is rather more to the draft charter and licence and agreement than simply the extension of the life of the BBC for another 15 years. My aim in the new documents has been to preserve the essential character of the BBC as a public corporation which is at the same time independent in the conduct of its undertaking and accountable to Parliament and to the public for the services which it provides.
The draft Charter and the licence and agreement therefore continue unaltered the corporation's main functions and the method of appointment of the governors, and of the national broadcasting councils. They preserve unaltered the main progamme objectives—information, education and entertainment—and the obligation to different parts of the country. They preserve the programme standards which the corporation has to apply. And they make no change in the relationship between the BBC and the Government.
I think that it would be appropriate for me to take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to the licence fee as a method of financing the BBC's domestic services. Hon. Members will recall that this is in line with the recommendations of the Annan committee on the future of broadcasting. This element of continuity is reflected in the licence and agreement for which I am seeking the House's approval.
In November 1979, when I announced the last licence fee increases I made it clear that the new fees would have to last for at least two years. I have no intention of increasing the fees before that two-year period has expired. Hon. Members will be aware that the BBC is already preparing its case for an increase in the licence fees, although it has not yet made any formal application to me. Hon. Members will also be aware that the corporation has proposed the establishment of an independent commission which would stand apart from the Government and provide an impartial assessment of any claim by the corporation for an increase in the licence fees. That proposal is under consideration, but I must make it clear to the House that the responsibility for fixing the level of the licence fees is one which Parliament has placed on the Home Secretary and which he cannot relinquish. I recognise that I have a duty to do all that I can ensure that the BBC is adequately funded. I also have a duty, however, towards the licence fee payer, and to take account of the resources that are available to the country at a time when the Government are working to restore the economy.
I do not intend to deal this evening with all of the amendments to the draft charter and the new licence and agreement. Before coming to the more important changes, I would single out for brief mention those amendments to the draft charter which acknowledge the board of governors' public meetings held up and down the country to ascertain the views of the public on the services it provides, and also the amendments which recognise the local radio councils which the BBC has established in those areas where it is providing local radio services.
I should also mention that the new licence and agreement provides for the BBC's contribution towards the costs of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Last Session's Broadcasting Act made corresponding provisions for the contributions from the independent side. I take this opportunity to draw Hon. Members' attention to the fact that I have now made the order which brings the remaining Broadcasting Complaints Commission provisions of the Act into force with effect from 1 June. And I announced earlier today the names of the four people who, with Lady Pike of Melton as chairman, will be the members of the new commission.
I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman, if through some oversight he has not been informed of the nominees for the new commission. The members will be Lady Pike of Melton, as chairman, Professor Carberry, Mr. Terry Parry, Mr. Hardiman Scott and Sir Thomas Skyrme.
I shall concentrate in the remainder of my speech on what I regard as the three most important changes that have been made in the new documents—those concerning the national broadcasting council for Northern Ireland; those concerning the way in which the corporation's programme obligations are set out; and, finally, those concerning technological change, especially the use of satellites.
Under the existing charter the corporation is required to establish national broadcasting councils for Scotland and Wales. The chairmen of these councils are the national governors for Scotland and Wales and their members are selected for appointment by the corporation by a panel of the BBC's general advisory council. The panel is nominated by the general advisory council. The main function of the national broadcasting councils is to control the policy and content of BBC programmes intended primarily for reception in these countries. For Northern Ireland there is an advisory committee which the corporation has appointed under its general powers to establish such committees but no national broadcasting council, though the existing charter enables the Government to direct the BBC to establish such a council for Northern Ireland. If it were to do so, the panel of the general advisory council charged with selecting members of national broadcasting councils would be required to make its selection for the Northern Ireland national council from a panel of persons nominated by the Government.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I, and indeed the board of governors of the BBC, believe that there should be a broadcasting council for Northern Ireland; that this council should be established in the same way as the Scottish and Welsh councils, that is on the face of the new charter rather than by means of a Government direction to the BBC; and that it should be appointed in the same way as the Scottish and Welsh broadcasting councils. Article 10 of the new draft charter provides accordingly.
I turn now to the changes in the new documents which concern the location of the corporation's programme obligations. As the debates last Session on what is now the Broadcasting Act, especially the debates in another place show, there is continuing concern about programme standards, especially in relation to the portrayal of sex and violence. Issues of that sort are legitimate matters of public debate, though, as the Minister with special responsibility for broadcasting policy, this is a debate in which, when it comes to certain programmes, it is not appropriate for me to participate.
I am entitled to express the view, however, that continuing public debate about programme standards and content is fundamentally healthy for it enables the broadcasting authorities, as trustees of the public interest in broadcasting, to perform their functions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way that members of the public, who are legitimately concerned about these matters, can make their views known and have some effect on the BBC is to write to producers and those directly responsible for programmes rather than to politicians?
It is important that members of the general public who wish to complain should do so in future to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, or direct to the BBC. The BBC takes great account of those who complain and the number of complaints that it receives. When people complain to me, I consistently say "You should write to the BBC and complain because that is by far the best way to make your feelings known".
Will the Home Secretary explain the difference, once the commission is established, between a complaint sent to the BBC and a complaint to the commission? Surely they are one and the same thing.
I shall obtain the answer to that question and ask the Minister who is to reply to answer it.
This debate needs to be based on a clear recognition that the responsibility for deciding what is and what is not broadcast resides with the broadcasting authorities, and also on the basis of an informed understanding of the broadcasting authorities' obligation in that area—not least because when one looks at their obligations one realises how large and complex is the responsibility which has been placed on them. Some of the BBC's obligations concerning programme content and standards are at present to be found in the licence and agreement itself, for example, the obligation to broadcast a daily account of parliamentary proceedings. Other obligations are set out in a ministerial prescription under clause 13(4) of the licence and agreement. These require the corporation to refrain from broadcasting its own views on current affairs and matters of public policy and from using subliminal broadcasting techniques.
The corporation's remaining obligations—for example, that programmes should maintain a high general standard and should not offend against good taste or decency or be likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or be offensive to public feeling; and that controversial subjects should be treated with due impartiality—exist by virtue of a letter of 1964 from the then chairman of the corporation, Lord Normanbrook, to the then Postmaster-General. The assurances in that letter are "noted" in the ministerial prescription to which I have referred.
I believe, and the board of governors agrees, that while only one change is needed in the essential nature of these obligations and no change is required in the way in which they have been imposed—or, indeed, in the case of the obligations in the Normanbrook letter, self-imposed—it would be desirable if these obligations were more visible and more closely associated with the corporation's principal constitutional documents.
The obligations which are to be found in the current licence and agreement remain in the new instrument unaltered. The obligations which are now imposed in the ministerial prescription under clause 13(4) of the licence and agreement, however, have been incorporated as clause 13(6) and (7) of the new licence and agreement. One of these has been amended in substance. Hitherto the BBC has been required to refrain from broadcasting expressions of its owm views on current affairs or public policy, except in broadcasts which consist of parliamentary or local govenment proceedings. Until the Broadcasting Act of the previous Session the IBA was under the same obligation, but the Act amended the obligation so that it did not apply to expressions of the authority's views on broadcasting issues. A corresponding change has been made in clause 13(7) of the new BBC licence and agreement.
Finally, the obligations in the 1964 Normanbrook letter were reaffirmed in a resolution of the board of governors last January, and this resolution has been incorporated as an annex to the licence and agreement. In other words, instead of, as in the words of the ministerial prescription in which the assurances in this letter are noted, "relying" on the Normanbrook letter, the assurances are now to be found at the end of the licence and agreement. However, there is no change to the substance of the obligations themselves.
These changes both preserve the character of the BBC's programme obligations and at the same time establish them more visibly as the important aspect, which they undoubtedly are, of the responsibilities of the board of governors and, indeed, of public service broadcasting in this country.
I turn now to those changes in the draft charter and the licence and agreement which concern recent and current technological developments, and open up the possiblity, subject to important limitations and safeguards, of the BBC engaging in activities within or on the fringe of traditional broadcasting which take advantage of these developments.
When the current charter and licence and agreement were drafted, in 1964 and 1969 respectively—it should be borne in mind that they were originally intended to last only until 1976—many of these advances were only dimly foreseen. The current instruments were drafted, for example, in terms of broadcasting services in sound or in visual images with sound, and they did not anticipate, for example, teletext—a system, incidentally, which both the BBC and the IBA developed and of which both they and we can be justly proud. One of the changes which has been made to the draft charter and the licence and agreement is to recognise the possibility of broadcasting in visual images only, and thereby to regularise the position of the BBC's Ceefax teletext service. The House will recall that last Session's Broadcasting Act regularised the position of the IBA's Oracle teletext service.
Technology has also overtaken the existing documents in relation to satellites. The present charter authorises the BBC to establish wireless telegraphy stations inside and outside the United Kingdom, but it is stretching the meaning of these words somewhat to suppose that "outside the United Kingdom" includes space. The draft charter which I have laid before the House contemplates the possibility of the BBC acquiring a space transmitting facility, but this would be subject to the Home Secretary's consent and to any conditions which might be imposed.
As hon. Members will be aware, I published last Tuesday a report of the study I had initiated last year of the options for, and the implications of, direct broadcasting by satellite in the United Kingdom. In the foreword to this report, I have given an indication of the Government's approach to the question of direct broadcasting by satellite. We believe that a positive approach is the right one, and we are willing to consider the possibility of an early start, in the mid-1980s, with perhaps two television channels broadcast into the home by satellite. I have invited comments on the report, and on the indication I have given of the Government's attitude, by the end of July. In the light of comments, I hope that we shall be able to see more clearly whether there is sufficient interest in the possibility of direct broadcasting by satellite and whether this possibility might be taken forward in a way which is consistent with our existing broadcasting arrangements.
This latter condition is important. Last Session the House and another place devoted a good deal of time to, and endorsed, the continuity of the essential features of our broadcasting arrangements and their adaptation for the purposes of the fourth channel. We must not lose sight of the fact that, even if satellite broadcasting comes, for many years ahead the great majority of the public will continue to rely entirely on the existing arrangements and the existing broadcasting institutions for their television and radio services. However, our broadcasting arrangements must not be—and are not—inflexible. This is why the Government's approach to the question of satellite broadcasting is a positive one. I look forward to receiving comments on the report from both within and outside the House.
I am coming to the obligations as they are set out in the licence and agreement. If I do not cover the hon. Gentleman's question, I shall ensure that it is responded to later in the debate.
The report indicates that the BBC has put forward proposals for two services of direct broadcasting by satellite, one for a subscription service, and the other for a service consisting of the
I considered that it would be right, without prejudice to the decisions which may be reached on direct broadcasting by satellite, to include in the draft charter and in the new licence and agreement provisions which would permit direct satellite broadcasting services of the kind that the BBC has proposed to be authorised.
However, any involvement of the BBC in direct broadcasting by satellite, and any subscription element in any new service which might be authorised, would require the Home Secretary's approval and would be subject to any conditions which he might impose. Furthermore, a subscription service could not constitute any charge on the licence fee revenue, though there is a power in the licence and agreement for the Home Secretary to waive this provision subject to such terms and conditions as might be appropriate, for example, to enable licence fee revenue to be used to assist in the establishment of a subscription service. Thus, the draft charter and the new licence and agreement might be said to unbolt the door to BBC involvement in satellite broadcasting, but they do not open the door. I consider this to be a sensible contingency approach at this stage, and I commend the relevant changes in the new documents to the House with the assurance that there is no question of the BBC or any other organisation, being authorised to embark on direct broadcasting by satellite without full consideration of the matter in this House.
I hope that the explanation I have given this evening of the main elements of continuity and change in the BBC's constitutional documents which are before the House will afford a basis on which the House can consider them, and proceed in due course to approve the licence and agreement. I do not think anyone will contest the importance of these documents, which will be the principal governing instruments which will continue the existence of the BBC until only four years short of the end of the century. Continuity is important, but flexibility, so that change can be accommodated, is also important. I believe that the draft charter and the new licence and agreement provide both, and I commend the documents to the House.
I begin with a direct declaration of interest. I write every week for The Listener magazine, produced by the BBC.
The presentation of the licence and agreement and of the draft Royal charter which accompanies it—the documents for the continuation of the BBC—provides the House with an opportunity, and perhaps creates for it a duty, to debate the powers, the structure, the performance and the finance of the BBC. I suspect that most of us take up that task from a position of open bias in favour of the BBC. That is my position. I am part of that generation which was brought up on Romany and Uncle Mac. That generation went on to be taught that Lord Reith's vision of a lofty educative, improving BBC was the ideal of public broadcasting. I still hold that view.
I believe that broadcasting should be judged by the standards set out by the BBC—set out by the assurances given by Lord Normanbrook to the Postmaster-General in 1964. Those assurances have since been repeated as a resolution of the BBC governors and are now added as an annex to the licence and agreement.
That annex speaks of the maintenance of high general standards, the provision of "a properly balanced service", response to the needs of different audiences and the treatment of controversial subjects "with due impartiality". I have no doubt that the BBC is, in general, highly successful in its attempts to discharge those tasks.
I have no hesitation in saying that no independent programme company in this country can compare with its performance in those four particulars. However, to say that is not to say that the corporation is either beyond criticism or beyond improvement. I offer some modest suggestions in both those directions from the position of a candid, yet affectionate, friend. It is in that spirit that I want to make some comments about the BBC's performance, its structure and its future. Those comments fall under four headings—the structure of the corporation as described or implied in article 3 of the draft Royal charter, the external services as described in clause 5 of the licence and agreement, the finance of the corporation as discussed in clause 16 of the licence and agreement, local broadcasting as referred to in article 11 of the charter and on numerous other occasions in both documents.
I make my comments on the basis of the four broadcasting principles laid down by the Annan report and now generally accepted by all who consider the future of broadcasting. Those four principles are editorial independence, public accountability and involvement, diversity and flexibility.
I shall refer first to the organisation of the BBC. There is and can be no doubt that the BBC enjoys a unique concentration of power—power to inform and power to influence. That is partly because of the number of families it reaches and partly because of the peculiar force of the medium by which it operates. I suspect that the BBC influences more people than do Lords Rothermere and Matthews and Mr. Rupert Murdoch added together. I do not suggest that the comparison should be taken much further than the ability to influence. The BBC struggles for standards and for an objectivity to which none of those gentlemen even aspires.
Despite those admirable qualities in the BBC's management and performance, the very size, importance and power of its abilities raise immediate questions about the propriety of a single corporation, a single board of governors and a single director-general controlling such a monolithic institution with such enormous powers.
It is not unfair to say that the Government have, in general terms, chosen to restrict the boundaries of public broadcasting. For example, I understand that the BBC could not apply for a cable television franchise. Inside the boundaries laid down by the Government, the Government are prepared to see the BBC's monolithic structure—I do not mean that as a pejorative term, but simply as a description of its unitary condition—remain unchallenged. My view is that perhaps the opposite conclusion is correct.
The BBC, or at least some form of public broadcasting, should be encouraged to enlarge its scope to move into new fields, but in doing so, it should also be encouraged to diversify the organisation with which it performs its many tasks. In general, the Annan report was devoted to the principles of diversity and pluralism. At the time of its publication, I was attracted to the proposals of the minority. However, it is not unfair to say that most of my colleagues in Government were not equally attracted to those proposals. The idea was that BBC television and radio should become separate organisations. I still feel an attraction to that proposal. Understanding as I do the substantial technical arguments which were advanced against it, I believe that the technical arguments can be much overstated. There are some potential economies of scale, but in the BBC there are also some potential diseconomies of size. In any event, a matter of principle is involved.
As the debate goes on, I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to give their opinions on how the BBC deals with specific matters of contention and political controversy. The real question is whether, a matter having been reported in a specific way, it is right for that specific report to appear on BBC 1 at 9 o'clock, BBC 2 at 10.45 pm and at 8 am the following morning on Radios 1, 2 and 3. Perhaps there is a simple issue of allowing more opinions to be expressed and for there to be more descriptions of the news, which are opinions, for there is no such thing as complete objectivity, by having a diversity of public broadcasting organisations.
Without wishing to be critical of the corporation in specific terms, its powers and size encourage the insensitivity—some would say imperviousness—to criticism that has characterised much of the public comment about it over the past 10 years. I know that this is an area of great complexity. All of us have our personal prejudices about individual programmes. For instance, I am smarting because of the decision to interrupt Sunday afternoon cricket—limited overs cricket, but nevertheless cricket—with motor racing and similar barbarities.
However, there is a distinction to be drawn between our individual criticisms of individual programmes and our feeling that the BBC is sometimes insufficiently sensitive to more generalised opinions about its performance. It should not bow in the direction of every wind that blows from the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association or anywhere else. It has been said that over the past 10 years the BBC has been marked by the growth of the machinery of self-justification. I suspect that it is less sensitive to criticism and less responsive to public opinion than a national broadcasting corporation should be.
The Minister will correct me if I am wrong. but I understand that the complaints procedure is restricted in the scope of the complaints that can be examined. I do not believe that the complaints procedure, the national broadcasting councils or the regional local advisory councils can, because of their structure and composition, provide adequate fresh air in the slightly exclusive corridors of Broadcasting House.
As my example of that, I take article 11(2) of the charter. As the Home Secretary told us, it formalises the new radio advisory councils for local radio. That article states:
The function of local radio advisory councils shall be to advise the corporation on the policy and content of local sound programmes.
I wonder if those councils are capable of performing a task which they should perform—that of reporting to the BBC the growing concern about the nature of local broadcasting in Britain.
I confess that I am a recent convert to the extension of local radio, both in functional and geographical terms. At the time of the Annan report I doubted whether the extension of that area represented the best use of limited resources. However, I doubt it no more. Perhaps a realisation should have come to me earlier. The world in which we live is dominated by three potential sources of local information. The first of those sources of information is local newspaper monopolies of a single political complexion, which rely more and more on advertising, as opposed to news.
The second source is local commercial radio, which is often part-owned by the local newspaper monopolies. The third source is BBC local radio, which should 'De and was—but increasingly fails to be—concerned with local issues.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that he has raised a query in my mind, and perhaps in the minds of other hon. Members?. He insinuated that because of their partial requirement to attract advertising local newspapers and local commercial radio stations are giving less than an objective report of the news, both locally and in terms of entertainment. I a m sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want to leave that impression.
That was not quite the impression that I wanted to leave. Perhaps I had better state the impression that I wanted to leave in categorical terms. I am rather more critical of those two media than the hon. Gentleman implies. Local newspaper monopolies are exclusively of one political persuasion, which must, in a democracy, be bad. Local newspapers are increasingly concerned with advertising. I am not saying that that influences their political judgment, but it influences their quality. We have seen a severe deterioration in the quality of local newspapers in the past 10 years. Perhaps, as a Member of Parliament for a Birmingham constituency, I might rashly be specific. The advertising content of the Birmingham Mail has continually increased over the past 10 years. Its treatment of serious news has deteriorated. Local radio, run by the BBC, should fill that gap.
I fear that local commercial radio will not fill that gap, because of its obligations to attract advertising revenue. My concern is that BBC local radio is not filling the gap adequately, not because of its judgment about standards—and certainly not because of any bias—but because it is becoming less and less local in its presentation and content. At the end of the debate, I hope that the Minister will tell us for how many hours in a week, on average, local radios produce their own material. My information is that the figure has declined continually over the past five years. More and more stations take material from the national networks.
Paradoxically, and perhaps unwisely, the BBC has set up a special unit to produce material to be syndicated to local radio stations. The nationally syndicated material seems to me to be the antithesis of what local stations should be doing. Local radio should be more local. That explains my concern that the response that the BBC ought to be showing to the fears of its listeners is not being passed through either local advisory comittees or anywhere else.
On the specific issue of local broadcasting, I am sure that the BBC will say that money is at the root of the evil. I believe that Mr. Aubrey Singer called local radio the black hole of broadcasting, that is to say, the place into which money disappears. In the BBC, money disappears in a number of ways. Some of us fear that it will be dissipated in less worthy objectives than proper local radio.
One example is breakfast television. I confess my dislike in principle of the idea. That is a pure prejudice of no interest to the House. It is simply an autobiographical fact. I confess my personal prejudice against breakfast television, for exactly the reasons that the Home Secretary seems to be echoing. I understand, however, the Gresham's law of broadcasting politics, which begins with commercial television seeking revenue and often ends with the BBC having to make some approximation to the programmes that commercial television sets up for that purpose. Nevertheless, I believe that radiovision—at best a hybrid plant—should not be a high priority at times of financial stringency.
I turn to the financial position of the BBC. The BBC is making a bold and determined bid for a £50 licence. With great respect to the BBC, I suspect that the independent audit as an institution will almost invariably endorse whatever bold and determined bid the BBC makes at any given time. The Home Secretary of the day will have to decide whether he wants such an institution, which may occasionally argue on his side, but which I believe is more likely to support whatever the BBC believes to be necessary for appropriate programme extension.
The BBC, in its bold and determined bid reminds us publicly and continually that it is asking for less than 14p per day and that radio-television is a bargain at the price. In two senses, I have no doubt that the BBC is right to ask for a total revenue of about £50 per licence from subscribers. It has the virtue of being a round figure. I do not have the advantage of knowing the exact costing. The requirement may be for little less, but I suspect that a licence fee of about £50 is necessary. I believe that the BBC is also right to say that in one sense £1 per week, or a little less for all the services provided by the BBC would be extremely good value. Nevertheless, there is an undoubted problem in charging such an amount, if everyone is charged the same.
I know very well the argument against direct Government funding. I believe that it is sometimes overstated, and that sometimes the BBC establishment is more anxious about the appearance of independence than about its reality. On balance, however, I do not want direct funding because I do not want the Treasury to examine the viability of specific stations, the cost effectiveness of maintaining orchestras or the appropriate cash limits for filming Shakespeare's histories. As all those things seem to me to be undesirable, I believe that the licence fee should be preserved.
I am reinforced in that view by what direct funding has done to overseas broadcasting. There has been the continual reduction in grant, the continual contradiction of programme errors, the abandonment of services—I am delighted to see the Home Secretary agreeing with this catalogue of misfortune—the cutback in capital expenditure and the relative decline of our services compared with those of the Soviet Union and the United States of America. They are all, I think, the direct result of reception of individual grant rather than any other form of payment, and I suspect that the Home Service would be subject to similar dangers were it to be financed by any other means than the licence.
But we are still left with the problem of the pensioners, the sick, the widowed and the unemployed. These are people for whom television is a particularly important service. For the old-age pensioners it is not a luxury but essential to their civilised and happy lives. These are people for whom £1 a week is a great deal of money. The Government have set their face against helping these people. The Government are wrong, and I hope that they will think again about the prospect of providing some assistance for them. If the Government feel unable to do that, they should not assume that the Opposition will support a licence fee increase which does not provide some specific help for the people who most need it.
I do not believe that it can be financed by the BBC. A subsidy of £150 million from the corporation for these groups would be a wholly unreasonable burden for the BBC to carry. It is the Government's obligation, the Government must face it, and unless they do they must not assume that my hon. Friends will support whatever increase they determine at the end of the two years. Even if the Government make that move, and even if there is unanimity—or something like it—between us about the increased fee, I hope that the increased fee will be set against specific objectives which the BBC is expected to fulfil.
The BBC has set itself six objectives. Four of them are the earlier evening start on BBC2, the afternoon programmes on BBC 1, later broadcasting on all television channels, and extended VHF coverage. I regard all those four as being highly desirable.
The other two are the expansion of home-produced drama at the expense of American imports, and an increase in local radio stations from 22 to 36. I regard those two objectives as essential. I hope that if an increase comes about it will be clearly linked to those objectives. I hope that the Home Secretary will make clear that the extra revenue—much sought after and much needed—will not be used for other ideas of grandiose conception but uncertain value.
I hope that nothing I have said to the House leaves it with the impression that I think that the BBC is incapable of improvement. On the other hand, I hope that nothing I have said suggests that it is anything other than the institution that I described in my opening paragraph—the broadcasting authority which fulfills its functions better than any other broadcasting authority in the world. While we talk about the changes that might come about, it is essential that hon. Members on each side of the House should express that opinion, and make clear that we look forward to the prosperous continuation of the British Broadcasting Corporation.
I am sure that hon. Members on each side of the House would wish to give a warm welcome to the general principle of the continuation and updating of the charter of the British Broadcasting Corporation which, whatever weaknesses it may exhibit from time to time, is still the standard by which broadcasting is measured not only in this country but throughout the world. Nevertheless, I feel that the opportunity provided by the new charter has not been taken to deal with two particular aspects which are of special concern to me and to my constituents.
I welcome the comments that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) made earlier about the financing of the BBC and about the improvement of the machinery for dealing with complaints from the public. We have missed an opportunity here to spell out the requirements of the public in these two areas, when they could have been established much more clearly. First, I am, of course, very much in favour of the improvement in opportunities for the public to express their views, and particularly, no doubt, their complaints, about BBC programmes. Nevertheless, it is important somewhere to enshrine a recognition of the view that early evening and Sunday programmes should be different, in quality and content, from those broadcast at other times. It is perfectly desirable to state that as a principle rather than leave it to the good offices of the directors of the BBC.
Whenever I have had cause to complain about programmes, they have almost always been programmes broadcast between 7 and 9 o'clock in the evening or on Sundays. I do not think that the public wish to take a narrow view of what broadcasting should contain. They merely want a clear recognition of the particular qualities of the family viewing period and of Sunday broadcasts.
On the funding of the BBC, the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook spoke as though the only alternatives were an increase in the licence fee and a direct payment from the Government. That is certainly not so. There are other options. The most important is that the BBC should seek to increase its revenue by providing commercial services for which people are willing to pay.
Although I may not carry my right hon. and hon. Friends with me, I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the difficulty faced by pensioners, the disabled and others in paying the licence fee. This matter has been discussed in the House and I will not develop it tonight, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that this problem has been made worse by the anomaly that many people in those groups, because of their peculiar home circumstances, do not pay the full fee, while their next door neighbours or the people on the floor above are expected to do so. I will not elaborate that point except to say that on this occasion I agree with the Opposition.
Article 3 of the draft charter, which deals with the objects of the BBC, both in radio and in television, relates to the provision of a public service. Clearly, "public service" means something available on reasonable terms to a large section of the population. It ceases to be a public service if its cost makes it difficult for many people to maintain their access to it.
The objections to increases in the licence fee are now so strong and so immediate whenever such proposals are made that we must recognise that whatever the merits of licensing—I appreciate that there are many—it is probably coming towards the end of its useful life. The BBC should be looking to other sources of revenue to avoid the need to increase the licence fee element.
Where I part company with the right hon. Gentleman is that I can see little or no objection to the BBC seeking advertising revenue. Whenever I have said this in the past, I have received communications from the BBC pointing out that advertising might reduce its independence and the quality of its programmes.
I do not believe that that is necessarily so. The presence of advertising in quality newspapers such as The Guardian and The Times and at the same time in the Daily Mirror and The Sun does not mean that The Guardian and The Times are moving rapidly towards the methods of presentation and the contents of The Sun.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me that every organisation accepting mixed financing which gave evidence to the Annan committee said that there was a deterioration in both independence and quality of service?
Yes, I accept that there is a strong body of opinion to that effect. I am arguing from the premise I put forward a moment ago, that the BBC is passing from the stage when it can depend upon licence revenue. I suggest, therefore, that it should look closely at the possibility of advertising. That does not necessarily mean the inclusion of commercials of the kind we have on independent radio and television, which either amuse or irritate us. There are other ways of obtaining advertising revenue; for example, the sponsoring of individual programmes.
That is a matter of opinion. I can see no objection to the sponsorship of a programme, the content of which is established in advance.
Article 16(1)(a) and (b) on page 14 of the draft charter deals with the receipt of funds, and advertising is not necessarily excluded. In article 3 there is a clear right for the BBC under paragraph (k) to produce printed matter and under paragraph (l) to maintain or start libraries of printed matter which can be made available either for a charge or free. We should be moving beyond the stage of printed matter. We are in the age of the video cassette. Surely, the BBC could find a ready revenue in the production of video cassettes, the sale of such material and the maintenance of libraries of such material that would be made available to members of the public at a fee that covered the cost. I see the article as permitting that, and I would welcome an assurance that the term "printed matter" is not intended to be a limitation on the BBC. If it is, the words should be changed.
We are all agreed that the BBC has maintained high standards and we wish to ensure that these high standards continue. If we cannot avoid the increasing objections of individual members of the public to the rise in licence fees, I make a firm plea for an energetic approach to the consideration of other ways of raising revenue. We wish to see a strong, stable, independent BBC and this would be one way in which it could be achieved.
I have two reasons for intervening in the debate. The first is that both Sir Ian Trethowan, the director-general of the BBC, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) opine that broadcasting is too important to be left to broadcasters. The second is slightly anecdotal. When I recently visited the United States I kept a log of what Americans asked me or told me about Britain. The first question I was asked was whether I had met Lady Diana Spencer. The second, which is perhaps only to be expected, was about Northern Ireland. The third remark was an expression of admiration for the quality and independence of the BBC.
I intervene this evening, therefore, rather like my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), as somebody with an admiration for the BBC, but also with a few criticisms. Whenever we make these criticisms, we need to have in the back of our minds that we have, by a British muddle-through, achieved a public broadcasting system that is the envy of others. We have seen in the French election how the French people themselves wanted to break out of the idea of political control of their public broadcasting. So there will be a thread of pride about the way the BBC has carried out its mandate over the last 50 years or so.
However, since, as the Home Seretary rightly said, we are taking our public broadcasting service right through to the twenty-first century in what we are doing tonight, it is important to ensure that the BBC is aware of public concerns. We are going through a broadcasting and communications revolution, rather like, as the Home Secretary indicated, the mid-1960s. We are probably only just perceiving what is going to happen during the next 15 years. We are setting things in motion this evening. I think it is right to lay down for the broadcasters certain guidelines as to what the public wants from them.
I was pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend said about concentrating any extra revenue on an expansion of real services. I will not go through his objections on cricket but I hope that we see a greater flexibility. I have always been amazed by the way people complain about repeats as though every single citizen spent every waking hour watching television. I miss lots of good programmes. I wish that television was on later, showing repeats. I wish that television would cater a lot more for the large number of people who do shift work. I think this would be showing much greater awareness of the community that it serves.
I also share my right hon. Friend's hope that television will become more local. Watching the local election results from Greater Manchester a week or so ago we were not very much aware that there was a great sweep of political indignation going on outside the capital. We thought that we were watching BBC London television, and I suspect that we were.
I should like to concentrate on three major points this evening. Although I suspect that I shall get some hoots from behind me, I must say that I follow a little way the arguments made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths). I really do believe that regarding the licence fee as a kind of sacred totem pole that we are asked to dance around is no longer an applicable way of financing our public broadcasting. Indeed I believe that the BBC has brought on itself a large number of its problems by making it the licence fee, all the licence fee and nothing but the licence fee. I understand the worry about commercial interference in television programmes, not only in the corporation but among the public at large although, watching some of the sporting programmes, the BBC's scruples about advertising seem to go out of the window. At any rate, the producer's choice of camera shots of snooker players continually lighting up tend to pass the bounds of credibility.
There is a case, I think, for corporate sponsorship in the way that we get the theatre, ballet and orchestras sponsored by big companies. That should not necessarily be ruled out. The BBC is already indulging in certain co-productions with outside organisations and I do not think that we should worry too much about that.
Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, I have no objections to a grant-in-aid. The director-general called for some independent review body to settle the licence and I cannot see that there would be anything wrong with, or any argument against, some middle body settling or suggesting a grant-in-aid. However, the BBC is chasing a will-o'-the-wisp if it believes that it can take away from the House and unfortunate Home Secretary the final decision on the amount of its revenue.
Over the past few years we have not seen the escape from political involvement that the BBC claims. We have had a continuing political debate. Home Secretaries go through three phases, and I suspect that that will be true of this one. In the first year they are strong and bullish about the independence of the BBC and its right to be adequately financed. Midway through Parliament they want to be convinced and to examine the books, although they say that probably they will go along with the licence fee—and we heard a little of that tonight. About 18 months before the next election, their knees begin to wobble, their courage fails and the BBC is once again plunged into financial crisis.
The BBC may believe that the licence fee can increase to £50, £75 and £100, but let us not forget that we are embarking on a period of high expense for the corporation, at a time when the great increase in the number of colour television licences, which was a major factor in the 1970s, has passed its peak. If the licence fee alone is to be the source of finance, it is likely to increase by larger and larger leaps and bounds. I echo the plea of the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North to the BBC to look again for alternative sources of finance.
If the grant-in-aid point is rejected, I adopt the line taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook. I agree with the director-general of the BBC that the corporation is not providing a social service and should not be expected to issue licences on the cheap for certain sectors of the community. However, there is an overwhelming case for the elderly and disabled to be given free or cheap television licences through the social services, and there is an attraction in that for the BBC. If those vulnerable groups are removed from the poll tax, which is what the fee is, the argument for a more expensive licence for the remainder of the community is more easily justified. However, while the BBC insists on a single poll tax that bears heavily on pensioners, the disabled and the unemployed, the argument will recur. Far from escaping from political pressures, the corporation will find itself continually in the centre of political debate.
I hope that during its present charter the BBC will press the House to allow it to televise our proceedings. You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, our overwhelming vote in favour of television, in which you played a key part.
Despite the supposed animal noises about which we are sometimes questioned, through radio people have become more aware of our proceedings. The editorial judgment of programmes such as "Yesterday in Parliament" shows that broadcasters can exercise responsibility. Access for television cameras is long overdue, and it would make us much more accessible to those whom we serve.
Finally, I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook in his plea for the BBC external services. Indeed, if technology is to develop apace, as is suggested, we may be seeking external services for television as well as external services for radio. Over the past 30 years, while Germany, America, France, the Soviet Union, China and South Africa have been expanding their external services the story of the BBC's external services has been one of retreat. It has retreated not because of the wishes of the corporation or the millions around the world who see BBC broadcasts as a beacon of truth, light and freedom, but because of the penny-pinching and short-sighted attitude of successive Governments towards the external services.
It is not because of political acts or for the benefit of trade from external services, but because, in difficult economic circumstances—at a time when communications and information are ever precious to many more people in the world—as a society, we should make the commitment that we will continue to broadcast the truth to the world. At a time when we have fewer and fewer abilities to give global gifts, the gift of information is still within our grasp and our economic capabilities.
There is good will in the House for the BBC. It is right that Parliament should be vigilant, especially in giving a charter for 15 years or more. We hope that the broadcasters will exercise proper responsibility with the immense power that we place in their hands.
I join in the tributes that other hon. Members have paid to the BBC, because the BBC has been responsible for standards and has shown its responsibility by the international preeminence that it enjoys. I cannot follow the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) in his advocacy of televising the proceedings of this House. We might even have problems about what copyright a television company might have in the drawings made by some hon. Members of other hon. Members. However, that is the least of the problems that such a reform would introduce.
I feel very much as the hon. Member does about the external services and their value. The way external services are financed is a good argument for maintaining the licences for BBC services generally. The public service ethic in broadcasting is as relevant today as it has ever been. I do not believe that the nature of that requirement is the same, but the need for a public service remains, despite competition from commercial broadcasting and the changes brought about by that, some of which have been good and others not so good.
The BBC is in a special and pre-eminent position as a broadcasting body. We are entitled to expect higher standards of it. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary read the terms of the letter that is now incorporated as an annex to the licence because the duties spelt out there are high. That gives the BBC a special responsibility in relation to the institutions of our society, by which I mean Parliament, the Government and the Opposition of the day.
The BBC should not be expected to be a spokesman for any of those institutions, but it cannot be neutral about the existence of them as part of our society. It is valid to provide time for criticism of the institutions, but I see the role of the BBC as being not dissimilar to the role that you, Mr. Speaker, perform in the affairs of this House. I say that because I believe that there is a general feeling that, through occasional, but marked, lapses there has been a deterioration in minor respects of the standard of public service broadcasting.
I do not share the paranoia of many politicians about the broadcasting services, whether the BBC or the commercial companies. If the politicians of both sides object fairly strenuously, the political balance is probably being maintained. However, I am concerned about the fundamental question of the blurring of the distinction between facts and comment.
If we cannot get at facts, we do not have a free society. If we cannot discuss the state of South Africa or Northern Ireland in ways that give us a broad picture of those troubled parts of the world—though they are not as troubled as we might believe—the decisions that we make about them and the opinions that we form will be prejudiced.
The presentation of news is particularly important and it has become muddled with comment in various parts of our broadcasting services.
Secondly, the BBC, like other broadcasting authorities, has to recognise that, to a certain extent, interviewers represent the broadcasting authority. The increased popularity of the BBC's world service, which I am sure many hon. Members did not listen to 10 or 15 years ago, derives from the decline in objectivity and the blurring of facts and comments in the presentation of news by our broadcasting services.
I am also concerned about the news headlines on Radio 4. They are supposed to be the presentation of fact, but too often they are more like newspaper headlines than the headlines of broadcasting bodies. There is a job for stronger editorial control in that respect.
I still believe that too much American material is broadcast on television by both the BBC and the commercial companies. That affects the culture of our society and could ultimately affect the society itself. I recently discovered that at peak viewing time one evening American material was being shown on all three channels. Material from Europe is being ignored, and there is a continuing attack on native British culture, which is still rich and has been made even richer by those who have come here from other countries. We ought to be doing much more to reflect those cultures rather than the American culture.
My last point relates to the licence fee. One has to point to the irresponsibility of the Labour Government in not tackling the issue. They simply increased the BBC's borrowing limit, which accelerated the problem now before us. I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) about the BBC taking advertising. Greater efforts in selling BBC archive material abroad could produce greater revenue.
I do not think that it is right or constructive to try to take the licence fee out of the political system. The House must have the nerve to face the facts every three and a half years or so and to agree an appropriate amount. The consideration of the licence fee gives hon. Members an opportunity to discuss the job that the BBC and the broadcasting services generally are doing. We should not shirk that responsibility.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that the BBC is, in the end, accountable to Parliament. My view is that a request for a £50 fee, fixed for three years, represents a good bargain for the consumer. The correct method of protecting those at the lower end of the income scale is through the supplementary benefits system. The request that the BBC has made is reasonable. I hope that my right hon. Friend will view it favourably in the autumn.
This debate on the 15-year continuation of the charter is wide-ranging. I should like to confine my contribution to the financial aspects of the new television licence. I suppose that it would be right to declare my interest. Since the early 1940s I have received sums ranging from two guineas upwards from the Corporation.
I have not progressed far from that.
By the terms of its charter and the licence and agreement the BBC has an obligation to fulfil regional coverage, external services and Parliamentary reporting. Although both the Government and the BBC agree that the BBC should retain its independence by not receiving direct grant aid—I agree totally with that—the BBC should be able to expect the Government to enable it to fulfil these obligations and to maintain high standards of service to the public by using their powers to fix a realistic licence fee.
If the BBC is at the mercy of Governments who decline to raise the fee to an adequate level because this is politically inconvenient, it can neither maintain existing services nor plan future developments with any confidence that it will be able to finance them.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) stated that continuity is important. I believe that continuity is important to an extent, but I also believe that the planning of future developments is an integral part of a successful administration. For that reason, the BBC must know what it is to receive not only in the short term but in the medium term.
In November 1979, the Government increased the colour television licence fee from £25 to £34 a year rather than the £40 to £41 requested by the BBC. They also indicated that the BBC should pay off some of its mounting deficit of about £40 million. As a result, the BBC cut £130 million from its estimated 1980–82 expenditure. The consequence was that £40 million was saved by economies in administration and programme expenditure. The BBC home services provide 400 fewer jobs than in March 1980.
Another example is the North-West region. In the department devoted to "opt out" programmes dealing with regional interests, the reduced budget meant a reduction of eight posts out of a staff of 40 in 1979. A total of £90 million was cut from the BBC's planned development budget. That is one of the most damaging cuts in the medium term at a time when technological developments in video systems and cable and satellite broadcasting—as we saw in the paper distributed on Tuesday—make future investment vital if the BBC is to be able to compete with other organisations, earn its own revenue and so keep the licence fee down.
The BBC must be able to plan ahead with confidence, whether or not the future licence rates are worked out with the assistance of an independent review body. An increasingly diminishing number of people have faith in review bodies. It is essential that the system should allow some provisional understanding between the Government and the BBC about the level of expenditure which is likely to be acceptable.
If the BBC is to provide the service which the people who pay the licence fee want and expect, it must have the resources to compete on equal terms with commercial organisations. In the debate on the BBC two years ago the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) said:
The health of British Broadcasting depends upon a BBC that has financial resources roughly equal to those of ITV."—[Official Report, 29 March 1979; Vol. 965, c. 696.]
In 1980 ITV's net income was £529 million to finance one channel. The BBC receives about £500 million to be spread over two television channels and to provide national and local radio services. Comparisons between the budgets of BBC and ITV for the same types of programme—that is, the cost of an ITV drama production and the cost of a BBC production of comparable length—are difficult because of the number of ITV companies involved.
For a programme such as the 25-minute regional news, for which BBC and ITV might be expected to use the same type of material, BBC North-West region has a budget of £4,500 a week. Granada allows over £7,000 for the same programme. Additional hours of broadcasting enable ITV to earn more advertising, whereas if the BBC increases its output it increases its costs. If the BBC is granted its request for a £50 licence fee to last for three years, it could open BBC2 early in the evening and extend its hours later most weekdays. That is what most hon. Members want. It is certainly what most of the public wants. The BBC could also restart afternoon programmes on BBC1. It could expand home-produced drama and extend BBC local radio coverage from 22 stations to 38. It could improve services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The BBC must maintain its breadth of coverage. However, quality is as important as quantity. Quality costs money. A BBC 1 drama series costs about £100,000 for a 50-minute episode. That is almost double what a similar series cost three years ago. Major BBC drama costs about £110,000 an hour. A light entertainment programme costs about £57,000, an educational feature about £38,000, sports coverage £15,000 and a purchased film or other programme £10,000 or less. In this life one gets what one pays for. Less revenue means less coverage of sport and national events, less drama, music and educational broadcasting, more old films and repeats and more low-budget programmes. It certainly means more American films.
Were it not for the affection in which actors hold the BBC, the affection which politicians have for the BBC and the decency of the production staff, the costs would be infinitely higher.
I attended a producers' seminar at the BBC last week. I found not only concern among the many people who spoke to the BBC senior staff, but an amazing concern among BBC producers for the viewers. I found over and over again that the producers were concerned for those who pay the licence fee. They said that when they direct a programme it is with the viewers in mind, not the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary or the politicians. The Government constantly preach the importance of economy and the virtues of self-help, and say that services and organisations financed by public money should give value for that money.
I want to give the House figures that show some of the BBC's efforts to practise what the Government preach. The BBC had a deficit of £40 million in November 1979. By March 1980 it was down to £33 million, by November 1980 it had virtually disappeared and the estimated deficit for March 1981 is about £15 million. The average cost of BBC's first-run network programmes is £31,000 an hour. ITV's network costs are in some cases double—and usually more than double—that amount at £65,000. The BBC's external services are run on a grant of £50 million a year. It broadcasts in English and 38 other languages. It broadcasts more than 700 hours per week, which seems relatively little compared with 1,800 hours by the Americans and 2,000 hours by the Russians. But then the Russians spend as much in four days on jamming foreign broadcasts as the BBC spends on broadcasting to Russia in one year—about £500,000.
The BBC already helps itself financially through two commercial businesses. BBC Publications pays the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for doing a weekly column. It has a turnover of £38.4 million. BBC Enterprises made a net profit of £4 million in 1980. That money goes back to the BBC to finance new programmes. The BBC's recent agreement with the Rockefeller Centre for distribution of its programmes through American pay cable television will provide it with more revenue to finance programme production. By the terms of that deal, known as "Bluebird", the partnership will have first refusal of all BBC co-productions for 10 years. It is estimated that the BBC will earn $100 billion during that period.
At home, the BBC is negotiating to become a major programme supplier to the new cable networks now beginning to operate on an experimental basis. After seven years the BBC might expect to earn £60 million a year from subscription television, by cable and by satellite.
Was the hon. Gentleman reassured when the Home Secretary said tonight that the BBC's efforts in the pay and cable services would not dilute its efforts in the general television services? It is a worry that it will seek to raise revenue through pay television, cable television and other efforts at the expense of its general television service. Is the hon. Gentleman reassured that that will not happen?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. He made a point that I wish to make.
Unless the BBC is properly financed, it will have to use the money currently allocated to make programmes to get on to the bandwagon of creating further BBC finances. For that reason, I make my plea now that the Government give the BBC the money that it needs.
British television provides an unparalleled range of material. The BBC has proved itself more than capable of holding its own in a growing world market. The "Six Wives of Henry VIII" sold to 75 countries and "Horizon" to 51, and the Shakespeare series of 37 plays to be produced over eight years is already sold to 36 countries.
At home BBC Enterprises hopes to expand its coverage of sporting and other events by sales of subscription television and video material to the public through retailers. This will depend on agreements with unions. However, self-help of that sort cannot provide the ultimate answer to the BBC's financial problems.
Profits from BBC Enterprises and BBC Publications provide only about 1 per cent. of the BBC's annual net income. The profits that are anticipated from subscription television by cable and satellite cannot begin to make any real impact for several years. However, as we know, it can begin to have a real effect on BBC expenditure long be fore there is any return. The licence fee will still be the mainspring of the BBC's finances during the decade.
The BBC still depends for its financial support on the public who pay for licences and on the Government who fix the licence fee. I support the BBC's view that to take advertising would result in not only a loss of independence but a reduction in programme range and standards. Competition between the BBC and ITV to attract advertising would force them to aim more programmes at a larger market and lose for them the ability to make minority programmes, which for the moment give the BBC its rare distinction. That is a distinction that no other national channel has.
A service partially financed by advertising does not necessarily result in a cheaper service. For example, a television licence in Switzerland costs £65. In Eire, where RTE obtains 45 per cent. of its total income from advertising, the fee is £38. The only four Western European countries that have a cheaper licence fee than the United Kingdom are West Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy. They all derive additional revenue from advertising, and not one of their broadcasting authorities can compete with the BBC in overall quality.
Commercial television is not free television. Companies that advertise pass on the costs to the consumer in increased prices, and advertisements are expensive. A 30-second commercial costs about £50,000. The BBC produces 30 seconds of an average network programme for £260. At £50 a year the BBC will offer good value. That is 131/2p a day. That sum does not buy much today—for example, a quarter of a pint of beer.
The main disadvantage of the licence system is that it falls hardest on those least able to pay, such as pensioners and low income families. Successive Governmemts have noticed, whatever they said in Opposition, that to promise to raise the 5p a week charge for old-age pensioners in warden-controlled accommodation is a poor way of attracting votes. However much they have tried to woo the old by promising them free television licences or cheaper television licences, they have never done it when they have been in position to do so when in Government. To exempt pensioners alone from the licence system would cost the BBC £150 million a year in revenue, and would inevitably result in a large increase for the other licence payers.
The law does not allow the cost of a television licence to be taken into account when assessing supplementary benefit rates. Some relaxation of that rule would enable those least able to pay to afford their licences. There are 18·5 million licence holders, but £35 million a year is lost to the BBC by evasion. Anti-evasion measures that are organised by the Post Office, for which the BBC has to pay, produce some results. However, it is cheaper to devise methods of making licence payments less painful by spreading the load than it is to prosecute for nonpayment. The BBC has already introduced television stamps, and gift tokens will be available this summer.
The Home Secretary set up a working party in July 1980 to consider schemes for payment by credit card by monthly instalments. It would be sensible to investigate that area with perhaps even greater devotion. The BBC does not want grant-in-aid for the home service.
The Home Secretary has said that he agrees with the BBC's view that dependence on Government aid would seriously weaken the BBC's independence and do nothing to improve its standards. If the BBC is to remain dependent on the licence fee for its main source of income in the foreseeable future, that fee must be realistic. By restricting increases in the interests of political expediency and compensating by increasing the BBC's borrowing limits, as was done in 1979, the Government merely ensure that the BBC will ultimately need to ask for higher increases to pay off interest on loans. The BBC cannot maintain the standards of impartiality and quality demanded by its charter if it is, as at present, financially at the mercy of successive Governments.
I urge the Home Secretary to approve such sums as will be needed by the corporation. The Home Secretary talked of an independent commission to determine the level. I remind him that when the Pay Research Unit considered the increase demanded by the civil servants, no one was told of the unit's findings. It sat and it deliberated and no one heard what was deliberated. All we know is that the civil servants are now on strike. I hope that, whatever happens with the independent commission which the Home Secretary will set up, the figures will be published. I fervently hope that the Home Secretary will see his way to accepting those figures and that the BBC, which is so endearing to all hon. Members, will be able to continue as it is now, but with fewer financial worries.
The hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) should know that whatever may have been done by the Liberal Party or the Labour Party, the Conservatives made no promises to people with poor means that they would receive from a Conservative Government free or cheap television. As no promises were made, no promises were broken.
I shall direct my remarks to Northern Ireland. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said about the setting up of a council for the Province analagous to the national councils for Scotland and Wales. There were interventions in my right hon. Friend's speech about precisely where complaints from the listening and viewing public should be directed. Although the Home Secretary said that they should be directed to the complaints commission, it would be illusory to suppose that right hon. and hon. Members will not continue to receive complaints from their constituents from time to time. That has happened in connection with events in Northern Ireland that many members of the public, constituents of mine and fellow subjects of ours in Northern Ireland think have been worsened by certain activities of the media, including the BBC. I say that with regret.
The effect of television on the troubles was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in response to a debate at the Conservative women's conference. It has recently been discussed in another place. Not in the House of Lords, but in the correspondence column of The Times today there is a letter from Lord Hunt, who is familiar with Northern Ireland, but not hard-line in his attitude towards it. He says that he is not surprised at the complaints about the conduct of the news media recently in Northern Ireland because he recalls a time in 1969 when he
witnessed the deliberate staging of an emotive incident in gutted and empty Bombay Street, off the Falls Road in Belfast by a television crew.
He raised that incident and another incident with the then director-general of the BBC. In his letter, Lord Hunt states:
in view of the apparent persistence of such objectionable practices, which may have a most harmful influence upon the formation of public opinion, is it not time that they should be made actionable in law?
Is it not, in any case, the duty of newsmen, as with all other citizens, to help uphold the law rather than to aid and abet its overthrow?
We are debating a draft of a Royal charter. The BBC, constituted under Royal charter, is the provider of a public service and must have regard to the public interest and to the safety of the citizen. I join those hon. Members on both sides of the House who have praised the work of the BBC's external services. I have been counted as one of those who have complained about the financial cuts to which they have been subjected. It is the truthfulness of BBC reporting—even when the facts reported put our country in a bad light—that has given the corporation a world reputation.
During the war there was argument and conflict between the Government and the corporation about how free the BBC should be. The programme about J. B. Priestley recalls how the BBC was accused of undermining the war effort. Now, as then, those who are subjected to totalitarian regimes will often turn from listening to, or watching their propagandist programmes to listen to the BBC. That was the case in the days of Nazi occupation and oppression.
However, Annan stated:
Broadcasters cannot be impartial about activities of illicit organisations. Nevertheless, these organisations are a political force in Northern Ireland; and it would be unrealistic for the broadcasters not to take account of them. This does not mean, however, that the proponents of illicit organisations should be allowed to appear regularly on the screen…Terrorism feeds upon publicity;…publicity gives it a further chance for recruitment.
I am hastening through the passage. I hope that I am not distorting it. It continues:
there is no reason to abet them by giving additional publicity.
Some Governments, including some democratic Governments, have seen fit to deny terrorist organisations the publicity that they so ardently seek by banning them from the media. One such example is the Irish Republic.
In 1972, under section 31 of their Broadcasting Authority Act, the Irish Government banned Radio Telefis Eireann from carrying interviews with spokesmen and sympathisers of the Provisional or Official IRA, although the
Official IRA has not been prominent in recent violence.
In October 1976 the ban was extended to cover interviews, or reports of interviews with members of the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein, or with members of any organisation proscribed in the island of Ireland. The Minister who imposed the ban was Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien. He said:
The propaganda activities of Provisional Sinn Fein in support of the Provisional IRA are in our view a danger to the state…It seemed to me that their presentation of their propaganda would suggest to the public that in some way Provisional Sinn Fein was accepted as a legitimate political party. I do not accept it as such. I accept it as the propaganda wing of a criminal organisation: a public relations agency for a murder gang.
Some hon. Members will have read a fascinating and illuminating book, "Terrorism and the Liberal State" by Paul Wilkinson. He goes so far as to say:
It is surely crazy to allow spokesmen for terrorists out to destroy the state to enjoy all the advantages of broadcasting their message…For if there is an ultra-pornography of violence then they are its ultimate representatives.
That is an argument worth considering carefully.
Paul Wilkinson goes on to say—and I agree with him—that
There is, in my view, nothing to be said in favour of attempts to control or censor the press in the reporting of terrorist campaigns.
I also echo his praise of the British and Irish daily press which, in his words,
has in general shown extraordinary accuracy, fairness, humanity and common sense in covering Northern Ireland. They have not allowed themselves to be used as propagandists.
I wish that the same could always be said of the broadcasting media. It is significant that various branches of the world-wide Mafia of terror elsewhere have attempted to blackmail Governments into ordering that their manifestos and demands be put out on television or radio. Newspapers are of much less interest to them.
The House will remember that in March 1977 the BBC staged what I then described as "trial by television" of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the "trial" was conducted in the absence of the "accused". In July 1979, free advertising, which is how I would describe it, was given in the "Tonight" programme to the Irish Republican Socialist Party and its military—or murder—wing, the Irish National Liberation Army, which boasts of having assassinated Airey Neave.
The House will also recall the condemnation by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, reported in Hansard of 1 August 1980, of a team from the BBC for what happened in a staged incident at Carrickmore. He said that they were guilty under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, although he did not decide to initiate proceedings against them.
Since those incidents, I believe that there has been a marked improvement. Recent allegations that television teams rented a mob to attack the security forces with petrol bombs and other missiles were mostly directed not against the BBC or Independent Television but against foreigners. Nevertheless, to some of us there seems to have been a strange coincidence between the presence or arrival of BBC cameramen and the eruption of a riot.
I do not ask for the same powers that exist in the Irish Republic to be exercised here. I do not ask for censorship. I do not ask the Home Secretary to invoke his power under clause 13(4) of the licence. Still less do I ask for Government control of broadcasting. If such censorship or control were imposed—and I do not believe that Parliament would allow it—the terrorist enemy would be delighted, for it is his aim to disrupt free institutions. I believe, however, that there are those at Portland Place who are sensitive to public criticism such as has been levelled against the BBC recently on account of the troubles over the H block affair.
In my right hon. Friend, we have a Home Secretary who knows the problem that I have raised as a result of his great experience at the Northern Ireland Office. I look forward to any observations that we may hear from the Treasury Bench. I do not ask for an answer tonight, but I wonder whether consideration could be given to whether adequate machinery exists, not of control but of communication between the Government and the broadcasting media, so that the broadcasting media can be promptly acquainted with the effect that their programmes may be having upon life and limb in Northern Ireland and upon the defeat of terrorism.
I wonder what has been done by the governors and by the director-general and all concerned in this great national institution, under Royal charter, to see that those it employs live up to the professional or ethical standards required by their calling. When it conflicts with the right to life, the right to know becomes a cruel and bitter absurdity.
I shall follow briefly, in a moment or two, the thoughtful remarks of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) in the context of the need for due balance and impartiality. But I want first to speak about the BBC as an institution, following the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).
When the Annan committee considered the BBC some years ago, it said that it was arguably the most important cultural institution in the nation. I see no reason now to abandon that judgment. It has had, in the twentieth century, an immense impact. As my right hon. Friend said earlier, if those of us who feel ourselves to be its candid friends sometimes find that our criticisms are taken amiss, that is the price we pay for having an institution with so many achievements to its credit. When we demand such high standards of it we are, perhaps, occasionally accused of being too demanding and too austere.
The points that have been made in the debate concern the institution and the way in which it must function over the next few years. The licence and agreement that is now being extended goes back—as we are reminded in the appendix to the documents that the House is considering—to the agreement signed between the corporation and the then Postmaster-General, Lord de la Warr, many years ago.
It is not often that the House has these debates, and they are not always as well attended as they should be. I say that particularly tonight because I do not think that there has been a single speech in the debate that has not been cogently argued and has not made a real contribution. It is a great pity that we do not take the opportunity often enough to have an audit of the work of this major national institution in the way that we should. The BBC employs nearly 28,000 people. It has a licence income, as the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) pointed out, in excess of £500 million, and it receives £50 million directly from the Government for the external services.
The points made about the BBC in the debate seem to come under four headings. The first is balance. The second is the funding of the external services and of the BBC nationally. Third is the future international role, if any, of the BBC in terms of satellites. The last, which was raised from the Opposition Front Bench at the outset, is the role that the BBC ought to be playing in the small-scale world of local broadcasting, where some feel that a great national institution treads heavily and does not always tread very carefully.
I should like first to mention the issue of programme standards, raised in clause 7 of the licence and agreement. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) has asked about the degree to which the BBC, in the agonised circumstances of Northern Ireland, is able to preserve a proper balance between those who uphold the State and those who would threaten it, subvert it or overthrow it by violence.
I covered the early days of the Northern Ireland conflict, before life was lost there, as a television producer and reporter. If the hon. Member looks at the record over the last 15 years of the BBC, and of the ITV companies, he will find that, with certain lapses—he referred to one of them, and I agree with what he said—the record has been good. Few broadcasting services have had to hold the ring in a debate which throughout has been tinged with violence between those who uphold the State and a small but significant section of the population who are entirely disaffected from the State and whose loyalties lie elsewhere.
My view is that those responsibilities have been discharged, but I wish to add one thing as an appendix to the remarks of the hon. Member for Epping Forest. Yesterday, the local elections were held in Northern Ireland. I wish that they had been covered with the same thoroughness as are the awful rounds of funerals, military salutes, men in masks, assassinations and explosions. Those events are hot news which catch the image, score the retina, and get the audience. The decent people who go to vote, the honourable politicians of all parties who, like some of our colleagues in the House, pistol in hand, have had to face mobs pursuing them and putting them in fear of their lives, deserve the support of the media at least equally with those who make the hot and dramatic news headlines. I hope that my words are heeded by the BBC, as, no doubt, will be the words of the hon. Member for Epping Forest.
In other respects, it is possible to make a political statement, as it were, by omission. It is possible to make a political statement by the way in which events are ordered. In the Labour Party there is a feeling of resentment—something that I hope will be heeded by the BBC—that in the coverage of the new Social Democratic Party over the past two or three months there has been an element of image building. I see that the Social Democratic Party has a representative present in the person of the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons), who may wish to challenge that. When the local elections took place in England and Wales recently and the Social Democratic Party did not put up candidates, it was surprising—to say the least—that a representative of the party was invited to the studios to discuss the subject on the basis of parity with the Liberal, Labour and Conservative Parties. It seemed to me that a statement was being made there, and I hope that what I say will be noted by those who produced the programmes on that occasion.
I want to say a word about the other matters that are covered in the licence and agreement relating to the specific duties laid on the BBC. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) said that perhaps the corporation should consider putting out sponsored programmes and programmes financed by advertisers. I oppose that for the BBC. I oppose it as a means of financing our national instrument of broadcasting. So did the Annan committee. We thought the matter through very carefully.
On the issue of sponsorship, I take the opposite view to that taken by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North. There is already too much covert sponsorship on the BBC and on television in general. I do not suggest that there is anything conspiratorial. It is there because products are promoted as they help to finance the events for which television apparently has an inexhaustible appetite. That matter must be considered very carefully if the obligations under clause 12 of the licence and agreement are to be maintained, and should be looked at more carefully than has happened in the recent past.
As we are holding our own audit in the House tonight about the way in which the existing licence and agreement has been honoured, I must say that I was unhappy at the time, and am still unhappy, about the kind of deal that was entered into with the Time-Life organisation by the BBC. I see that that is to be prematurely scrapped by the BBC, and that the corporation is switching instead to an arrangement with the Rockefeller Centre television organisation. The corporation says, somewhat optimistically, in the information provided for this debate, that perhaps up to £100 million will come from that source of revenue.
There are dangers down that road, too. The corporation should be careful about the kind of international agreements that it enters into, particularly if there is any degree of reciprocity with regard to the products of the organisation with which the partnership is made. I hope that the corporation will look at this very carefully.
The overseas services are sustaining cuts of £6·2 million over the next two years, £3·1 million each year. In spite of that they are asked—and have responded—to provide services at short notice for the new flashpoint areas in the world. They are putting out additional services in Russian, Turkish and Pushtu which can be heard by a large proportion of the Afghanistan population. It is right to do that.
To provide the flexibility to make such adjustments at short notice, there are two requirements which this constant process of attrition of the overseas services does not provide. The first is an up-to-date system of transmitters. The programme for overhauling the transmitters, some of which are over 40 years old, is falling behind. Secondly, the BBC must be able to preserve and maintain a sufficient cadre of skilled people capable of mounting the service.
When I worked in Bush House a decision was taken by the then Government that the Thai service should be phased out. A year or two later the geo-political preferences changed, the Foreign Secretary went on a visit to Thailand and it was said that the Thai service should be restored. Meanwhile, where had all the Thais gone? They had gone away, and it was hard to find them again at short notice.
Service must be maintained, even to areas of the world which are at the moment tranquil and placid. One never knows where the next coup d'etat will occur or where the pressures of totalitarianism may deprive the population of access to the news which the BBC is reputed world-wide for providing. For those reasons, we should give much greater buoyancy to the overseas services.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) will look carefully at the way in which the Annan committee attempted to argue the licence fee, he will see that the arguments that have been advanced in the debate today in its defence are correct. The argument for some form of grant-in-aid seems to me to be invalidated by the extent of political pressure which inevitably enters into the argument. The argument for some form of sales tax is made extremely difficult by the problem of collection, and providing the necessary buoyancy. Would the tax be put on transistor radios? Would it be put on a particular service provided by the BBC? It is difficult to see anything which gives sufficient flexibility for a proper adjustment of the licence fee.
I take my hon. Friend's point about the problems of the pensioner. The licence fee is a regressive tax, but we should be able to handle that in the context of the licence fee remaining the major element in financing the BBC. We should not allow the corporation even to flirt with the idea of getting a substantial part of its income from subscription. If it is to be the national service of broadcasting, its principal services should be equally open and accessible to all our citizens. The question of which service can be obtained should not be a question of money. Anyone in possession of a television set or radio should be able to get all the services.
If we go to a system of local pay TV along the lines of the experiments that the Home Secretary has authorised, provided by the BBC, or if in the future we have pay TV in the sky and a subscription service run by the BBC, there would be withdrawn from the mass of the population who do not pay the subscription the right to the full range of the corporation's services. It is the great glory of the BBC that it provides all its services for all our citizens, and so it should.
The Home Secretary was a little coy about the audit board to which he briefly referred. If there is to be such a board provision for it should be announced at the same time as the renewal of these two documents.
If he is to have such a board, how can he guarantee that it will have a measure of independence greater than those other dispensers of Government approved revenue such as the University Grants Committee, which even now is in the most supine way acting as the instrument of the Government? That is the real problem of any board. How is he able to have a board which is able not merely to act as an assessor but to make its recommendations stick? He cannot do so if he allows the funding of the corporation to take place on a year-by-year basis. If the funding were properly provided, the recommendations made by the assessors could be looked at in the slightly longer term and could perhaps also be decided in the light of events. Everybody knows that the licence fee has had its least effect as a source of revenue in times of highest inflation under Governments of both parties in recent years. Therefore, I hope that we shall have an indication soon of what kind of board we are to have.
We have been told that we are perhaps to have in the fairly near future a modest start—I quote the Home Secretary—on satellite broadcasting. Probably we are right to look at that now. The Annan committee was rather dismissive about this and got rid of it in a paragraph or two. Yesterday the House was debating the problem of the "space invaders" that we now find in the corners of pubs and to which it seems our young people are addicted. Now it seems that there is another kind of space invader which can cover large areas without regard for national boundaries. If I belonged to a small European country such as Norway, with an identifiable language and only 4 million people, I should be much more worried about such a satellite and what the satellite could do to me than I am with English as our language. But it is undoubtedly the case that the document put out by the Home Office makes it clear that other people are getting into this and are in the early stages of development of their satellites.
I therefore think that it is right that we should not only make our own preparations to launch a satellite in the 1980s to go into service by the end of the decade but should begin to think about how the sevice should run. I make one suggestion on this point. If the BBC is to have a share in this, as I think that it should—that would be in line with the Annan recommendations—it ought also to have, and it could be a supplementary source of income, a share in the revenue that such a satellite could earn. It has been proposed in the United States that the satellite there might be used to earn revenue for the PBS television service through rental income.
If a satellite were to be put up in this country, would prefer it to be done by public expenditure. It seems to be one of those ways in which both our technology and our industrial expansion could be financed by the intelligent use of public revenue, rather than leaving it to the market and waking up to find that the Japanese are doing it. I should like to see such a satellite exploited for the public good and the rental revenue perhaps made available to public service broadcasting in this country.
I have one last point to make on the issue of local radio. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook referred to Aubrey Singer's now notorious remark that the local radio stations were financial black holes. Many of us are concerned about the degree to which the demand for the local element in radio is now being diminished and may be increasingly diminished by the new notions which are coming out of the BBC hierachy. In the Royal charter itself, the local radio advisory councils are described as being appointed for areas consisting either of one such locality or of two or more such localities in England and in the other areas where there is local radio. How many localities will be covered by a local radio council? If a local radio council is doing its job, it must protect the direct interests of the locality, and if it is covering a large number of areas it cannot do that.
The real problem about local radio in this country is that, although we have all paid lip service to it neither the commercial stations nor many of the BBC stations have that sense of the small community thinking and aching together that we all wanted when local radio was first mooted. Therefore we should look at article 9 of the draft Royal charter and say exactly how local councils will have full regard to the interests of our people in that region, or, as the case may be, that locality. I believe that we are drifting away from that notion of locality.
The BBC's radio network working party put forward a number of options, working towards an organic change in local broadcasting. Option 4 suggested that there would be mandatory network programmes with a sustaining service of music, or muzak—one can take one's pick on the pronunciation, tone and content of what would be provided. It would not be local stations broadcasting for at least 10 hours a day, which is what local managers told the working party that they needed if the stations were to be genuinely local. If we move in that direction, we are moving right away from what the BBC was charged to do.
If that is what it is doing, the BBC should be told to leave a measure of local radio to some quite new service, extruded into the middle of the existing system. Yes, it is breaking into the duopoly, which this Government and the previous Government set their face against. I regret it. In the cheap, flexible medium of local radio, we should be able to break into the duopoly and have genuine community services. If those small scale services cannot be provided by the BBC, they should be provided by someone else.
I hope that the debate has committed every hon. Member to the concept of public service broadcasting and to support the BBC as the national instrument of that broadcasting. However, we should tell the BBC that it should not only heed the points made in the debate but should also remember—taking my theme again from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook—that it is a time for diversity and perhaps for divesting itself of some of the interests that in its general territorial imperative it has tried to maintain.
Mr. Tim Branton:
I shall skid quickly over several areas and make a comment or two and then introduce two new areas to the debate.
First, the proposed licence fee of £ is well worthwhile. In fact, it is a bargain. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said that some hon. Members would say that. I say it. If one considers the money's worth that one got 10 years ago for a colour television licence, at today's prices one was paying the equivalent of £39·70, as opposed to the £34 that we are paying. The value of the licence fee has diminished. It is high time—if I dare say it, like hon. Member's salaries—that the licence fee caught up with the fact of life.
The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) mentioned local radio. His ideas of local radio seem to be more in the line of community radio, which is a description that he used towards the end of his speech. I know one local radio station, Radio Medway, very well indeed. It does a signally good service for the area that it covers, but it is interesting perhaps to anyone in the BBC hierarchy considering expanding the service over half or the whole of Kent one day to know that the delimitation of the area that the station is given by its masters to cover is much too small for the listening public whom it serves. Its public is wide. The listeners are irritated when they find that their local radio station—as they would describe it, even though they may be outside the area—cannot cover them for news.
Dealing with hard news and comment, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) was absolutely right when he said that we get complaints that what is happening is not quite right. I should have confessed to my interest in the BBC many years ago. I was 10 years on the staff in the 1950s, when things were much clearer. There was no doubt that the news was factual and was the voice of the BBC. In no way did comment intrude.
Now, we have purposely appointed freelance presenters of programmes who can, and rightly should, inject a little personal opinion to give a programme life, reading the news in many programmes. If I were to issue a warning to those who complain about problems of opinion and lack of objectivity coming through, it would be that broadly the BBC has the balance right. I believe that because many of my supporters with conservative views object violently to the sorts of things they see and hear on television and radio. At the same time, my trade union magazine, the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians magazine, once a year regularly goes to town about the Right wing bias of the BBC. That is a satisfactory state of affairs if both scales of opinion feel that the BBC is wrong.
The problem is that the BBC and all broadcasters should consider whether a further look should be taken at comment intruding on the hard facts. That is where the viewer and the listener is puzzled, especially by dramas depicting true life stories. I had an interesting experience some years ago, when I was a performer in an elaborate practical joke for 1 April called "Alternative 3". It was an interesting programme to do for a practitioner in television and radio because the only target that I could meet, as the so-called presenter of the programme, was to be credible in a totally fictitious situation. The test of our success—whatever people thought of the quality of the drama—can only have been measured in the intense interest of the press, the public and everyone who watched that programme, despite the cast list of actors put at the end of the programme and in spite of a caption saying "This programme should have been broadcast on 1 April". In one area, Yorkshire, the viewers were told beforehand that the programme was fiction. That is the power of television. It is not an intellectual power but a power that can persuade people, against all reason, to believe something that is false. It is a tender plant. That is why I plead for the hard news to be considered more carefully.
I want to introduce a bleak note on the financial front, but it is important that it should be mentioned. The feature film is being used extensively on television. Last year ITV used 328 feature films made for the cinema and the BBC proudly announced that over 60 feature films were shown over the Christmas holiday. That is the extent of the use of feature films. The British feature film industry hardly exists today, because no finance goes in that direction.
The broadcasters—reluctant though they will be in these times—must contemplate paying the right price for the purchase of feature films, or shortly, there will be no more feature films for them to show. Feature films are the backbone of broadcasters' material. The film made for the cinema is a different product from anything that the television director and producer can put together. It must have finance, time, care and love and a completely different technique.
A real and important proposal, which it would not be suitable to expand on tonight, is that some sort of Eady levy system should be transferred from the BBC and ITV to pay a contribution from the audiences who watch films on television instead of going to the cinema.
I pay tribute to the BBC for its huge contribution to the patronage of the arts. I have figures showing that £105 million was spent in 1979–80 on drama, serious music, popular music and arts features. Of that sum, £40 million went to the artistic community and the rest covered production costs. We must never forget that the BBC is one of the most effective and useful patrons of the arts.
I have spoken critically at various points, but I hope that I have ended on a happier note. I am a BBC old boy; and having worked for the BBC is rather like having been a Boy Scout. You never cease to love the organisation.
All the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have spoken as candid friends of the BBC—some more candid than friendly and some more friendly than candid, but all drawing a. balance between those two approaches. Perhaps the balance is geared to the number of appearances on the BBC and the number of fees collected, but every hon. Member has spoken as a friend of the BBC.
It is appropriate that we should have concentrated on finance and the licence fee. Whether we see the BBC going in for new technology through cable or satellite or coping with the more mundane problem of maintaining standards and current progamme output, finance is the central issue.
Like the pay of Members of Parliament, the licence fee tends to be decided through a mixture of prejudice and fear rather than through an assessment of economic realities. Successive Governments have shown a mixture of good intentions and bad actions on the licence fee. That is worrying, because for some time the licence fee has been far too low to allow the BBC to improve its services or even to maintain current standards and output.
The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) was right to draw a comparison with European countries, but he was wrong to say that four countries have cheaper licence fees than that of the BBC. The figures that I have show that only Italy, with a fee of £27 for colour television—and that does not include the free pornography that is available in Italy—and the Netherlands, with a fee of £29, are cheaper than the BBC.
Ireland, with a fee of £35 plus two free BBC channels and one free ITV channel in much of Ireland, France, with a fee of £35 for indoctrination through the French television chains, West Germany, with a fee of £38, and Denmark, with a fee of £63, are all more expensive than the British licence fee, particularly when one takes into account the fact that the State television services in many of those countries also carry advertisements.
In passing, since other Members have mentioned it I would be sympathetic to the BBC carrying adverts on Radio 1—but only on Radio 1. I cannot see that there would be any degeneration in the nature of the service or the nature of the appeal to the audience if we recognised that Radio 1 is in direct competition with commercial radio.
The polluting effect—perhaps I should say the changing effect—of advertisements on radio would be inhibited on the BBC, because it is like a layer cake, with different sections of the audience turning their attention to different channels, and I cannot see Radio 1 being changed by commercials.
My main argument, however, is that the licence fee, as the BBC suggests, should be a fee of £50. A strong case exists for an emergency extra payment to be authorised by the Government to get the BBC out of the financial situation to which it has been reduced by a licence fee that has not been adequately raised.
The BBC is right to point out that, if the licence fee had kept pace with earnings since 1968, it would now be £57 rather than £34 for the good service that is available. My reservations about the licence fee arise in only two areas. I believe that pensioners should be exempt from payment of the licence fee, as proposed by the Labour Party at the last general election. The gap should be made up by the Exchequer. Anomalies that cause great annoyance among pensioners are produced by the fact that many in sheltered accomodation and group accomodation pay practically nothing for their licence fee while those living on their own pay the full licence fee. This amounts to a very regressive taxation on pensioners.
The BBC has an obsession with stamps. When one gives people something to complain about, one gives them, at the same time, something to lick. The same process applies with gas and telephones. As charges escalate out of the reach of ordinary people, compensation is given in the form of stamps to lick and to save, so providing the Government or the Post Office with money interest-free for the period during which the stamps are saved. This is not a good enough answer to the problem. Pensioners should be exempt from the licence fee. There is a strong argument for the independent review body—a Lord Boyle of broadcasting—mentioned by the Home Secretary.
To provide a television licence free for pensioners would cost £150 million. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that this should be found by adding to the licence fee paid by others, including the unemployed, or is he suggesting that the Government should supply a subvention?
I assume that exempting pensioners from the licence fee is Social Democratic Party policy as it is Labour Party policy. The hon. and learned Gentleman, like myself, stood on that platform at the last general election. Since his party's position is that it is more loyal to that platform than the Labour Party itself, he is presumably attached to it, as we are. I have already argued that the gap should be filled by the Exchequer. There is a case for a Lord Boyle type review body to provide a cushion between the BBC and the Government. I see its role mainly as checking the constant tendency in the BBC to increase bureaucracy, which is one of my main worries. Another concern is the constant chorus of self-congratulation one hears from the BBC.
Such a body would allow the Government to soften the blow of an increase in the licence fee because it would be seen to be the result of an independent recommendation. Those paying the licence fee would know that the BBC had been audited and checked and that it was functioning in the most efficient fashion following audit by an independent body. I would have liked to see such a body incorporated in the proposals before the House today.
The licence fee, in times of inflation, is an inadequate means of raising money for the BBC. Under the present Government, the BBC is hit from both directions. If inflation goes up, the licence fee does not keep pace. If inflation comes down, it is the result of a depression so horrendous that its scale is used as an excuse for demanding outs from the BBC and for refusing to increase the licence fee. The corporation is hit both ways. We get excellent value and there is a substantial case for increasing the licence fee.
Both radio and television are becoming increasingly expensive. There is a tendency to stultification. When large sums of money are at risk there is a tendency to play safe; not to experiment and not to take risks, simply because of the rapid increase in costs. I heard yesterday of a television company which had an inspired idea for a Christmas programme. It was "Barbara Woodhouse meets the pets of the stars." That is a classic example from a broadcasting organisation not one hundred miles from Grimsby—in fact 82 miles from Grimsby.
Such an idea opens up limitless product horizons. There could be programmes such as "TV Psychiatrist talks to the children of the stars", "David Bellamy talks to the pot plants of the stars" and "Delia Smith re-cooks the dinners of the stars." They are all examples of the non-think in television because of the expense of programmes. The expense is leading to a production line approach to programmes and the guaranteed formula.
Television companies are playing safe when desperately the industry needs new ideas. The new ideas can and will come from smaller units and the BBC regions which often have been innovative in their approach to political programmes when the ITV companies have been cautious. But in the main the ability to take risks comes with a healthy financial position. To keep up, adjust and retain the flow of new ideas the BBC needs revenue.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) emphasised, the cuts are having an increasing effect on external services. A total of £3·1 million of economies must be found in the years ahead. That service is our voice to the world and it is important to Britain. That cut is a retrograde step. Because of that step, I am to lose the programme to which I listen every night—the BBC World Service on the medium wave. I listen to that when driving home. It whiles away the hours from midnight to 4 am when I arrive back in Grimsby. The cuts are a personal blow as well as a world blow.
I am glad that the BBC has not been turned into a whipping boy, as it often is when it is blamed for everything. We have heard only one complaint about bias, and that related to Northern Ireland. I shall not comment on Northern Ireland—I am not standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.
It is odd that hon. Members on both sides of the House who complain about bias are not here tonight. I suppose that they are earning fees from the media by complaining about the bias in the media. It's odd that they do not put their complaints here. Even odder is that many of those who complain most about bias are those who are best covered by the media. They are covered on the basis of the news value, the shock and the sensational.
In journalistic terms "Dog bites man" is not news, but "Man bites Labour Party" and "MP bites Labour Party" is news. "Member of Shadow Cabinet bites Labour Party" is even bigger news in contrast to the norms of political association and activity.
I do not want to refer to bias, except to say that there is a problem because of the corporation's approach to industrial relations. We see a constant harping on about industrial relations problems and a constant emphasis on stereotypes of labour versus capital with the workers always being caricatured as demanding, aggressive, picketing, loud-mouthed figures and management as putting forward a reasonable view. That preoccupation and caricature is a form of bias.
There is also a constant "chaps like us" syndrome that comes across acutely from the BBC. It sees itself as an agency of the national interest, presenting the views that all sensible, thinking, people are supposed to hold. That especially comes across in programmes about Europe and the Common Market. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) said, that approach is also taken towards the Social Democratic Party, which has been highly publicised not only for news value but because it is made up of "chaps like us"—the sort of chaps that decent, sensible people want to see on television. Frankly, I was amazed to see Shirley Williams appear on that lamentable BBC county council election night coverage, which was really coverage of the London election results and not of anywhere outside London. She was the spokeswoman for a party that was not fighting the campaign, and whose embarrassing role was only to say that if an SDP candidate was defeated he was not authorised to stand anyway, and that if he was successful the party would take the credit.
Most of the problems of bias are institutional and, therefore, affected by the charter before us. The annex to the licence and agreement effectively embalms some of the factors that produce bias by entrenching a provision for neutrality and impartiality, rather than allowing parties and interested groups to speak for themselves and politicians to do their own thing. The impartiality requirement too often means that the corporation sees impartiality not as taking a lead but as taking its cues from the press, which it assumes to be the voice of the people. The press ventilate an issue and the corporation follows. The impartiality requirement is harmful and dangerous to that extent.
I want to comment briefly on party political broadcasts, which are useful in taking the heat of the politicians off the corporation by allowing politicians to put over party views and therefore diminishing the pressure on the regular programmes. Having criticised the Euro-fun party—the Social Democratic Party—I must say that there is a strong case for a Green Paper on the approach to party political broadcasts now that a new party has been born. There is no case for excluding it from party political broadcasts either between elections or during the election period. Yet the existing criteria—candidates, votes and number of Members—become confused when applied to such a party. It should have access to party political broadcasts, both during the election period and in between, as do other parties. The two-party channels that work out such matters will have to apply themselves to deciding what criteria will allow that to happen. That means a Green Paper. It means thinking now about the coverage that we need during an election period. We must do so now before it is too late and before it becomes an issue of such party controversy that nothing can be done. That is the personal view of this believer in party political broadcasts. It is important that the parties have direct access to the people, and what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the little gander. A new agreement must be formulated.
Local radio is a vital service. The BBC's local radio service has its faults. The audience is too middle aged and too middle class. The approach has often been too public service and too dull because the key to promotion in the BBC is to present exactly that type of programme. Reporters and producers in local radio see themselves as pleasing the hierarchy by presenting that type of programme. However, despite those faults, BBC local radio has been extremely successful. It has brought an approach, a form of programming and a local emphasis which would not be available if it were not funded in that fashion. People think of it as "their" programme. That is especially so in Humberside where we have no other local radio. There is a real affection for Radio Humberside.
In clause 11(2) of the draft Royal charter, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North pointed out, the councils to be appointed can consist of one locality or two or more localities. That seems to break the essential local tie that should be present. They should be genuinely local. There is also no provision for public access to the proceedings of the advisory bodies. Surely the role of those bodies should be—I believe that it is—to put over the views of the public. If they are purporting to speak for the public, be they important public people or whomsoever, the public should have access to their proceedings. There should not be a closed-door conspiracy between the advisory bodies and the BBC. That provision should be written into the charter.
There is another argument about the feeble nature of the provisions specifically for local radio. The BBC should be required to meet the same obligations as those that Parliament has laid down for the IBA and its local radio station. We do not have that requirement. The present requirement is much too simple and much too bald. It is basically that the corporation should have full regard to the interests of "our people" in the region or locality. I am not sure whether "our people" is a misprint for "the people". "Our people" seems rather exclusive.
I accept the correction that has been offered from a sedentary position. In that context my hon. Friend should certainly have been standing.
These provisions are rather feeble because they allow the dilution of the local element in local radio to continue apace. There is far too much dilution. The inadequacy of the provision means that the door is open for further dilution. The planned increase in the number of stations has been reduced from 65 to 38 and the BBC, in its reaction to the report of the radio network working party, is leaning to the fourth option, which would reduce the output of local stations and compel them to carry network material. That will be a serious setback and a serious blow to the ability or incentive to offer local programmes, local news, local information and all the other things for which local radio exists. I should not like to see the Radio London approach spread throughout the country. Local radio will be changed into a uniform service—almost wallpaper for the ears, interspersed with news.
Therefore, it would be better if the charter stipulated, as the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act 1973 does, that
the programmes broadcast…contain a suitable proportion of matter calculated to appeal specially to the tastes and outlook of persons served by the station or stations and, where another language as well as English is in common use among those so served, a suitable proportion of matter in that language;…that the programmes broadcast from different stations for reception in different localities do not consist of identical or similar material to an extent inconsistent with the character of the services as local sound broadcasting services.
It would be better if that section from the IBA Act were the relevant section of the charter. Otherwise, it looks like an open door to further economy, further dilution of the local element in local broadcasting and further excuses for the BBC to go in that direction because it does not have the money for any alternative.
I am extremely worried about that trend in local radio. What is creeping in is a series of centrally prepared programmes, whether it is "How to unblock your tap" or "Disembowelling made easy", all prepared in London and shipped out to local radio stations in a way which totally defeats their purposes.
Those local radio stations should be the BBC's roots in the community. They should be a local recruiting service whereby people who want to enter the media, journalism and so on are recruited in their localities by local radio, serve those localities and as they get better, they progress up the hierarchy to the central organisation. In other words, local radio is the bottom rung of the promotion ladder where people learn the job. It should be the area where people can make mistakes and carry out experiments and dare to take risks. It should be the area where there is that intimate bond between local station and local community. All those things are endangered by this sort of dilution process. The role of local radio should be to feed in items to the centre, not to carry items propagated from the centre outwards.
Therefore, it is crucial that the BBC, in this as in all the other respects I have mentioned, should have the money from the enhanced licence fee to do that job and all the other jobs which this charter has given it to do.
I am happy to follow in debate the hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) because in the haystack of his speech is to be found the needle to which I hope to add a thread in developing my argument.
The hon. Member for Grimsby said that as he drove northwards from London to Grimsby he enjoyed the same pleasure as I do driving less far northward to Hemel Hempstead, often listening to the BBC's external services. He pointed out a fact which I should like to proclaim to the whole country, that that opportunity will shortly no longer be available for a large part of the country.
Before I develop that theme, I shall make a brief point about how we should approach the question of the licence fee. The way in which the BBC obtains its money, whether for the home or external services, is closely tied up with the fact that it is about to close down the audibility of its external services in this country.
For the time being, we should continue to finance the BBC largely through the licence fee. While it sounds a generous gesture to make it cheaper or even free for elderly people or people, such as one-parent families, with some other financial problem, it is not the way in which we should seek to subsidise the individual. It is far better to provide financial assistance for the individual and to let him choose how to spend it than to spend, I understand, £150 million on providing a cheaper or free service that an elderly person might not choose.
When the new transmitter at Orford Ness, Suffolk, comes into service in a few months, the excellent BBC overseas services will no longer be audible in many parts of the country. For several reasons, that is sad. I am happy to join my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) in declaring that I was a strong supporter of the external services of the BBC when the necessary stringencies that the Government had to effect at the beginning of their term of office appeared to be about to threaten not its existence, but many of its important services.
It follows that our enthusiasm for our ability to broadcast to the world unbiased reporting, not only of what happens in Britain but of what happens in nations all over the world, will be diminished if people in Britain cannot listen to, enjoy and benefit from those excellent worldwide services. We are frequently told that we should begin to treat the world as one village of which we are all members. Therefore, it is sad that such an excellent service should not be audible to the people who put it out.
Why is that happening? It might be thought that this serious problem is impossible to overcome. I suspect that it is not. I have written to several of my right hon. and hon. Friends and to the director-general of the BBC about this. At present, the new transmitter at Orford Ness is beaming several English language programmes towards Europe. It would cost more money—I cannot find out how much—and would involve some variation in the agreements on international frequencies—I cannot find out how complicated—to enable those broadcasts which by definition must have strong signals, to be redirected so that they are audible in the remainder of Britain. We are told that they will be audible in most of Southern England.
Those who travel by car to Grimsby are likely to find that the excellent programme that they are listening to on the radio will fade somewhere beyond Lincoln. By the time that they have reached Kesteven, the programme will have faded completely. When I wrote to my right hon. Friends, I hoped that my letter would be met with some enthusiasm, or at least some compassion. But I received a response to the effect that the situation was rather sad, but that our ability to hear such programmes was a spin-off, because those excellent services were primarily being provided to overseas listeners. It was implied that the fact that we had enjoyed such programmes in the past was no reason to expect to go on enjoying them in future, because that was not the purpose for which they were provided. That is what is said to those who complain. it is a shortsighted attitude.
I get such brush-offs because the service is financed by one Department, namely, the Foreign Office. The rest of the BBC's services are financed through television licences and, therefore, indirectly through the Home Office. Indeed, in almost any case, in my brief experience in this House, where two different Departments have had an overlapping responsibility, I have found that each of them tends to shrug off that responsibility into a vacuum. I refer to the problems of civil defence, which my right hon. Friend has been gallantly seeking to tackle, and I praise him for it. The dichotomy between the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence in that area is another illustration of the same problem.
If it is a matter of money, I suspect that it involves only a few hundred thousand pounds per annum—certainly a very small amount in the context of the £550 million provided for the BBC overall. I ask the BBC, the Foreign Office and the Home Office to get together to see whether, by each chipping in some small proportion of the funds at their disposal, they can make up the financial gap. I ask them to get together to see whether they can overcome the problem of international frequencies, which seems to be part of the cause of the difficulties. I am sure that the limited technical and mechanical problems are well within the power of the BBC to put right.
I value very highly the external services and the work that they do as ambassadors for this country. From the external services one can hear and learn things about the world that one could not expect to hear on any local programmes in Britain. It is not only a matter of losing that benefit; we shall also lose our understanding of and our enthusiasm for the medium which is one of the most beneficial in giving us world-wide influence today.
I add my congratulations to the BBC, at the same time picking up the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about continuity and change. Its programme performance and production are unparalleled in the world in terms of entertainment, information and education. Its development of new programme ideas is unsurpassed. Unlike some speakers in the debate, I believe that it has followed up and instigated innovations in an admirable way.
In spite of the difficulties that the BBC has in making ends meet—not unlike most businesses or corporations today, be they private or Government—it is better at its housekeeping than most other public corporations or Government-funded organisations. The efficiencies that it has introduced in the last few years are a mark of that.
In broadcasting terms I have only one quibble, and I share it with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), although for somewhat different reasons. I refer to the BBC's less than total commitment to the development of local sound broadcasting. This is not only due to the shortage of funds. I do not believe that it has grasped the difficulty of striking the right balance between national programming and local programming. It is not due to the lack of opportunity, because commercial local radio has gone ahead in leaps and bounds at every opportunity. Those opportunities should have been grasped by the BBC.
I hope that the new local broadcasting councils will not be a camouflage for a continued too low level of real activity in emphasis upon or in expansion of local radio. I hope that Radio Brighton is at this moment listening in. I should have liked to see a greater emphasis in the new charter, or in the licence and agreement, on how to meet the needs of local—and by that I mean really local—radio broadcasting. I sincerely hope that my right hon. Friend, and the Minister of State when he replies, will support in their expressions, if we cannot support it in these documents, the expansion of local broadcasting in this country.
We have heard mention of the expansion of BBC interests into pay TV, probably through some sort of television fed through land lines. Unlike some hon. Gentlemen opposite, I would welcome such expansion. At approximately £8 per month, which is 30p per day, it would be pretty good value and it could yield for the BBC between £50 million and £75 million a year, 10 per cent. of its total requirement, and that is not to be sniffed at. It would provide a medium for special sports coverage, for particularly high-cost arts programmes and for a special screening of first-run cinema films. Perhaps most important of all, it would provide a facility for beaming into people's homes local programming by regional or even smaller communities such as was argued for in the Annan report; and that would be welcomed.
I welcome also the positive support of the Government for BBC involvement in satellites in the report published two days ago. Although the expense of it will be very high indeed—between £30 million and £50 million, depending on whether it is two channels or five—I believe that we have the instruments in this country—not only the BBC but the new British Aerospace Company—to get this venture off the ground. From this the BBC could get subscription services yielding in the region of £50 million to supplement the licence fee. This would not only be good in broadcasting terms but would offer the most marvellous opportunities for the British film industry, and it would be a unifying influence within the whole of Europe. These are elements, among many others, which we will weigh in the argument which we shall put forward when the House has the opportunity, as soon as may be, of discussing satellite broadcasting.
Turning from those subsidiary ways of raising revenue for the BBC, I should like to touch on the question of the fee and then make some comments on it. It is unfortunate that it was raised to only £34 in November 1979. I do not believe that we on this side of the House are on very good or strong ground in criticising the actions of the Opposition when they were in office, because both parties have been hesitant about putting up the fee when they should have done so. The reason is clear. It is that, athough Governments are worried about the services provided to listeners and viewers, they are also worried about the electoral influence of increasing the fee.
We were reminded of that in one of the editions of the Crossman diaries, when he said:
After this yet another Cabinet…This time we decided to have no increase in the licence fee and no extension of hours but to develop our local radio stations. We would simply postpone the increase in the licence fee until 1971, after the election. Wilson was saying that we would demand that the BBC should do everything but we wouldn't give them the means to do it, and that was carried. It was a terrible decision, and shows how tired we were, but at all our Cabinet meetings it is becoming clearer that from now on nothing will be decided except in terms of electoral advantage.
I feel that that is the sort of comment that could have been made in almost any Cabinet that discussed the licence fee.
I do not believe that it is sufficient to allow the BBC to take the initiative, likening itself as it does to other public corporations when arguing for greater self-control. It is ludicrous to pay the BBC for the right to receive and to give it the wherewithal to produce, when perhaps in only a few years people will not watch the material. We shall be watching ITV, satellite TV, pay-TV or the tapes that we have recorded.
That leads me to speak in support of the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths), the hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) and others that the BBC should gain more of its funding from advertising. The estimate of the advertising that may be carried Europe-wide when a satellite network is established is about £1 billion. Coming closer to home, advertising is steadily growing in all shapes and forms. It was approximately £2·6 billion in 1980, and it will be £2·8 billion this year and £3·2 billion in 1982. Television advertising is taking an increasing proportion of the total, rising from £621 million in 1980 to an anticipated £684 million this year and £786 million in 1982. Those figures should be compared with the total BBC revenue of about £500 million.
The BBC—a combination of channels 1 and 2—attracts over half of all television viewers. On the measurement for April, BBC1 attracted 40 per cent. and BBC2 15 per cent., making a total of 55 per cent. The corporation is attracting its share—some would say more than its share—of the viewing public. Only the other day an advertising specialist stated:
there is no doubt that the BBC is out-boxing ITV at the moment, especially when it comes to BBC2.
The BBC should also be attracting its share of advertising spending. If the Government change their mind and decide not to follow the Annan suggestions, it would not be the first time that a Conservative Government have done so to good effect.
It is particularly important for the BBC to become established as an advertising medium before the advent of breakfast television and the new commercial channels that will be available with satellites. I disagree with my colleagues who argue against advertising, just as I disagree with those who argue against postponing the fourth television channel. The tax take from more competitive television advertising would make up at least the majority of the levy that the Government would lose from the existing television companies. I believe, too, that the public would like a fourth channel, which will be apparent when it comes into being.
No less a person than the director-general of the BBC identified the funding attraction of advertising revenue when he spoke to members of the broadcasting press in July 1980. He stated:
in relative terms—relative that is to the commercial broadcasting sector—our position is clearly deteriorating more sharply. They, with a monopoly of broadcasting advertising, are able to increase their 'prices' in line with what the traffic will bear, and so are able to more than keep pace with inflation. Our price'—the licence fee—can only be increased if the Government of the day is willing.
It is no longer credible to talk in scaremongering terms and say that taking advertisements would weaken independence, standards and quality or, in terms of a rating war, result in a competitive battle for viewers. The
BBC is already engaged in a war to attract viewers, to keep its more than 50 per cent. share of the viewing public and to win measurement competition from month to month and week to week. In the heart and mind of every producer of every television programme everywhere there is the need to win the rating war and, from the BBC standpoint, to win it to motivate like-minded people to work for it.
The director-general said:
Where there is competition—and where we must hold our position—is for the broad range of events which the public wants to see, and above all for the skill and talent of producers, directors, writers, performers, commentators and not least technicians, all of whom we need to make programmes of high quality
and, he said, by innuendo, to attract audiences to the BBC. He summed it up by saying:
in the broadcasting industry there is a unique situation, with two organisations which in a few years will be roughly equal in size, but which on present trends will not be enjoying anything like equality in resources.
He pleaded for a revised fee system, with greater independence and a new Government review. The case he makes is the better met by the institution of revenues instead of a fee. But that is not to claim that advertising would cover all the BBC's costs. It probably would not want it to because it would lead to too intrusive and too extensive advertising. However, it could make a major contribution.
In the place of the remainder of the fee, I suggest the introduction of a special broadcasting tax as a percentage of the price of any broadcasting instrument, whether a transmitter or a receiver, or any electronic player such as a television, radio, cassette, tape or record player, with the phasing out of the licence fee over a few years. At the same time, the complicated and immensely expensive gathering paraphernalia should be disbanded and that £35 million should be collected by another route that the present licensing fee system lets slip. That would provide a more viable total financing package for the BBC. It would be better for the listeners, and better for those listeners identified by the Opposition who have to pay for a licence and who, they claim, cannot afford it—often they cannot—the pensioners and people on supplementary benefit.
The reason that we have not grasped the nettle is that we have tended to adopt a paternalistic approach to broadcasting. That is firmly entrenched. I know that My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will not misunderstand me, but perhaps I can best illustrate it by saying that the responsibility for broadcasting rests with the Home Office which is an office of regulation and control, as it is in many other areas.
Some intervention is essential to maintain standards so that we remain the envy of the world, to ensure coverage and to represent British broadcasting in international caucuses. But I wonder whether the present amount of intervention by the Government is correct or necessary. It is not as necessary as when we had a limited number of wavebands and channels for sound and audio-visual broadcasting. It is not as correct as when it would inhibit the regrowth of the British entertainment production industry to meet the needs of a burgeoning national and international market, as we now have, for what we can produce on film, tape, cassettes and laser discs.
We should look to these documents as being a signal for the Government to withdraw slowly from the intervention that has grown up. As technology has created wider and wider opportunities in broadcasting, so Governments have felt driven to create machinery and bureaucracy to control it.
I suggest that we should withdraw, for freer choice, reposition broadcasting where it belongs—in another Department of Government, probably Trade or Industry—free the BBC from its present restraints and encourage it into cable and other pay-television and into satellite broadcasting, remove from it the yoke of inadequate licence fees and allow it to seek commercial income to supplement Exchequer funding from a tax on audio and audio-visual instruments. The new BBC licence and agreement provides an opportunity for the Government to start taking the first tentative steps in those directions.
I wish to make a few brief points and I shall not detain the House for long. The director-general said that the BBC was for the free mind what Oxfam is for the hungry. He may have been quoting someone else, but he was correct, and that demonstrates the importance of the BBC's external services and broadcasting in 38 languages at a cost of about £55 million.
When there are so many closed societies in the world it is important to remember that the broadcasting of impartial news to those societies is a great service to the people there. It helps Britain's reputation and British trade.
Today is the birthday of a great Russian scientist Andrei Sakharov, who is in Gorki prison. He was imprisoned for expressing unpopular views, and the way to change that system is for organisations such as the BBC to carry on his work by broadcasting the truth to the people of the Soviet Union and other countries. That is the way to remember Dr. Sakharov and people such as Shcharansky and Orlov who are languishing in Russian prisons.
In the days of the Shah and in these days of the Ayatollah, the BBC's overseas service to Iran is of great value in telling the people of Iran something about the outside world, and programmes in Farsi to Afghanistan are also valuable to the people of that country in all their tribulations.
It is tragic that, although we have the best broadcasts, our competitors have the best transmitters. We spend only £55 million a year—and the Government want to cut it—on grant-in-aid from the Foreign Office to the BBC, and there is a strong case for increasing that assistance.
This is the International Year of Disabled People, and I remind hon. Members that television can make life much more interesting for deaf people. The BBC spends about £¼ million on helping with sub-titles for the deaf. lt intends to spend £10 million on the fourth channel for programmes in Welsh. There are only about ½ million Welsh speakers, and more than 2 million deaf people. There is a strong argument for doing a great deal more for the deaf through extra expenditure on subtitles and on sign language on television for those whose literacy is poor.
I appreciate that the BBC is doing something, through its Ceefax development and "News Review", but much more needs to be done, and the Government should provide assistance for that purpose, so that deaf people can have the great solace of meaningful television.
When one sees the BBC's great plans for the 1980s and 1990s, it is remarkable that parts of Bradford and other areas of the country should still have very poor reception. It is a pity that investment cannot be provided to enable people to see and hear programmes clearly.
Video cassette recorders in this country now number about 400,000. It is expected that by 1985 there will be 4 million, and by 1990, three times that number. I have no criticism of the BBC. The fact is that Thorn Consumer Electronics, our biggest manufacturer and retailer of television sets, refuses to make the investment to make those sets, which means that they have to be imported. So far as I am aware, Britain plays no part in the huge development of television cassette recorders. It is a tragedy that British companies will not provide the money. It is a tragedy that helped to close a large television factory in my constituency.
I favour a situation in which the Government do not make a block grant for the television licence. Under pressure, the Government have cut overseas and educational expenditure in universities. One does not want a situation in which Government feel that they have to respond to the pressures of the moment by trimming a grant to the BBC. There is always the feeling, too, that, if the BBC behaves well, a future Government might provide more money but that if it does not behave well in the eyes of the Government, less money might be provided.
The arbitrary nature of choice by those in authority can be seen in the Greater London Council's decision to cut off funds to the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and in Humberside council's refusal to help finance the English National Opera in the North. Those are examples of what happens when funding is placed in the hands of politicians operating on an ad hoc basis.
I hope that a system will be retained whereby funding is independent of total Government financing. 11 is one thing for the Government to be involved in specific items such as services for the deaf or overseas broadcasting. I would, however, oppose a situation in which the Government were the only providers of money to the BBC.
Although not perfect, the BBC does a good job. It has high standards. It maintains, on the whole, a remarkable impartiality. We are lucky to have the service that is provided.
Anyone who presumes to rise to speak at this stage in the debate must wonder whether he would not be better employed reading a short epilogue and playing the national anthem. I should like to join those hon. Members who have paid tribute to the excellent job done by the BBC over the years. We wish the corporation well in its task over the coming 15-year period of the charter once it comes into being. I am concerned to see that the BBC maintains its renowned high standards in three important aspects built into the guidelines under which it operates.
The first is the provision of information. I am delighted to pay tribute to the high standard of the BBC's news programmes and to the fact that on the whole the BBC seems to manage to avoid the pitfalls of triviality, trivialisation and what Jay and Birt once called in a celebrated article "Bias against understanding." If we can ensure that the BBC follows the provisions in the excellent annex attached to the licence and agreement I shall be satisfied that it is more than likely to continue its high standards. Is the annex a binding part of the agreement?
I urge all those involved with the BBC to do everything possible to boost the educational and educative role. I pay particular tribute to programmes such as "Horizon" and "The World About Us" on television. I hope that in future the Open University will be broadcast at sensible times and that the newly inspired Open Tech will develop to the full on television.
Great challenges are ahead in a time of high unemployment, for the extended teaching which the media can provide and which is known as distance learning. That is particularly important in foreign languages in which we have fallen a long way behind in commercial and other terms. I hope that the original Reithian purpose can be updated in that aspect of the BBC's activities and that it will continue with the good work that it has done in the past.
Another aspect of the BBC's activities comes under the heading of entertainment. That must play a large part in the schedules. It is necessary, if not for entertainment purposes alone but to raise additional revenue through joint productions with the United States, for example. I hope that those in charge will ensure that it does not become too dominant an influence upon television and radio, particularly in view of the fictional slots in programmes which all too often can mislead people and produce demonstration effects which are not healthy for our society.
Football hooliganism is an example. One of the effects of television is that it keeps middle-aged and elderly men who used to go to football matches at home watching the box with a can or two of beer. That is fine for them, but such responsible citizens are withdrawn from the terraces. That is an unintended effect of this new and powerful medium. I hope that the emphasis on entertainment will not be such as to lead to blanket coverage of sport which discourages people from going out and participating directly. On the whole the BBC has done a good job. I wish it well in the coming period.
The debate provides an opportunity for the House to consider the role of the BBC in the next 15 years. It also provides an opportunity to view the BBC as it now is. For that reason, I wish to concentrate briefly on quality, because that should provide a fundamental pointer.
The quality of programming in general terms remains high, especially when the programmes are home produced. One has only to recall some of the classic television serials, education features or well-produced radio plays to be aware of that.
It is appropriate to draw particular attention to the role of the BBC as patron of the arts. Its patronage is now one of the major contributions to excellence in music and drama in the United Kingdom. The quality of news, however, unfortunately and increasingly, leaves much to be desired. One only has to compare television news with radio news to realise how often visual gimmickry is the excuse for an item to be featured rather than because it is an important news story. Of greatest concern is the merging of news and opinion so that they often become indistinguishable. Such so-called news stories are usually little more than sensational speculation rather than factual reporting.
The quality of the external services, despite financial difficulties, continues to be self-evident, as the rising appreciation of the world service has shown. But the quality of self-censorship is, regrettably, not so self-evident as both bad language and offensive displays bear witness, too often at times when families may unwittingly find themselves viewing or listening.
I believe that the viewer and listener is rightly concerned that quality should be maintained and improved rather than that standards should be put in jeopardy. I hope that the BBC will recognise that its consumer, who is also its paymaster, will be both encouraged and more appreciative if the corporation can take stock of its current spending and build upon that foundation during the next 15 years.
It is appropriate that the debate has been well attended, as broadcasting debates go, because during the next 15 years the BBC will be exercising immeasurable influence and immense power, and will largely determine the way in which adults and children look at the world. It has great prestige not only because it is conscientious and vigilant but because it is free from two forms of control—commercial control and political control. I hope that the House will constantly guard against those two forms of control ever intruding into the way that the BBC is run.
The first charter granted to the corporation more than 54 years ago was not nearly as long as the one that we are discussing today. The duration of licence now proposed is for 15 years, which is the longest consecutive period of renewal that has ever been granted to the BBC. The Government have not justified why they have chosen 15 years, apart from the administratively convenient fact that that is the same period as that given to the independent broadcasting authorities. I remind the Home Secretary that in Committee on the Broadcasting Bill, with some of my hon. Friends, I put the case for 10 years to be the extension of duration. The main reason was parliamentary and public accountability for both authorities.
The BBC should be proud to give an account of itself to Parliament through the Home Secretary. It is not enough for it to produce an annual report, for us to hold the occasional general debate, or for the Home Secretary to answer parliamentary questions. It needs the stimulus and challenge of Parliament's renewal, or the possibility of its failure to renew the BBC's charter for the corporation to be truly accountable to Parliament and the public.
When we are considering the BBC's duration of life we must take into account not only its existing functions and powers but major developments that can and will take place and which will change and expand those same functions and powers. We have heard tonight of many developments. They are uncharted seas which the BBC will enter during the next 15 years. There are the spread of video cassettes and discs, a subscription broadcasting service and probably other new technological developments. Nobody can predict what will be the outcome in 1996. So this charter is potentially one of the most significant that the House has ever debated.
By the end of the century television viewers will be choosing their programmes from a multitude of sources from this country and overseas. These changes mean that Parliament must be particularly vigilant in ensuring that the BBC maintains its present on the whole high standard of programmes. Limiting the life of the corporation is the best way of making the corporation accountable to the public.
Nearly every hon. Member who has spoken has dealt with the financing of the BBC. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) came down in favour of the grant. Most other hon. Members supported the licence. I am sure that all my hon. Friends agree that on no account should advertising be a source of revenue for the BBC. Most hon. Members had reservations about the licence. Even Annan said that it was the "least unsatisfactory" method of raising the revenue. But it has the advantage of leaving the BBC freedom on programme plans and on financial policies.
Several of my hon. Friends expressed concern about the unemployed, pensioners and the disabled, and they want to devise some form of help for these sections of the community as the licence fee continues in existence. I hope that the Government will think carefully about how these groups can be helped.
The House has a duty to see that the BBC is provided with the finance it needs to help it to maintain its programme standards and to compete effectively with independent television and radio. We must do that even if it makes us politically unpopular. The BBC should never be allowed to become the poor relation of the public services.
Another form of financing would be sponsored programmes. I am glad that in the documents before us the Government appear to be saying "No" to them. Even if the BBC is facing serious financial difficulties we should never resort to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, South was sympathetic to sponsored programmes, but they are the thin end of the wedge. I fear that they could lead to commercial domination and influence of the corporation. I trust that the Home Secretary will never give his approval of them.
We have been discussing more and different services. I hope that the BBC will agree that more broadcasting, more services and more channels do not always mean better broadcasting. Quantity is not necessarily synonymous with quality. The primary aim should be to provide programmes of quality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) made the important point that pay television could lead to first and second-class services, the first-class for those who are paying extra, and the second-class for those who are not. But the advantage of subscription television—or, at least, of pay television cable services—is that there would be no advertisements. Even in the United States pay television does not have them. We were told earlier this month by the chairman of the governors, Mr. Howard, that pay television could add £50 million to £75 million a year to the BBC's overall income. That we should certainly welcome. The scheme would also give a boost to our ailing film industry. I hope, therefore, that the Government can look further into this aspect. Pilot services are now in operation.
I hope that the Minister, in replying to the debate, will explain why there is a rush over satellite television. Only two months are being allowed for comments. Clearly, there cannot be a debate on the document in the House during that time, yet the public and Parliament have not been consulted at all about satellite television. The document was drawn up using the views of interested parties. There seems to be a rush, even though we have for some time been able to observe the experiment in France and Germany.
We should like to know whether the interests of the British film industry will be fully safeguarded. I am, again, concerned about advertising, which could enter into satellite television. The document does not make it clear whether advertising would be used as a source of revenue in satellite broadcasting, although it is suggested. Satellite television could lead to an unprecedented advertising boom, and there are fears that this development could be the successor to commercial television as a licence to print money. I think that I speak for all my hon. Friends when I say that, if we are to have satellite television, it should not be funded, even partially, by advertising.
The document is not clear either about what the cost to the BBC will be in the first year or two of satellite television. Are the Government confident that the sort of profits that would be made are clearly possible on ordinary pay-television?
I congratulate the Home Secretary on the appointments that he has made to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. I wish Baroness Pike every success as chairman. She has two excellent qualifications. Although this is one of the 55 new quangos that this Government have set up since they came to office, it is refreshing that, instead of one of the usual male heads of quangos, appointed through the old boy network, a woman will hold this job. Secondly, Baroness Pike has the advantage of having been an Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, which I can assure the House prepares one for any eventuality.
When the commission was provided for under the Broadcasting Bill last year, hon. Members agreed that complaints about unjust or unfair treatment in broadcasting, or of unwarranted infringement of privacy could be made only by an identified individual or body. The commission should not be a tribunal of taste and should not consider general complaints. We felt that that would seriously inhibit the freedom of investigative journalists and interfere with the BBC's independence. For the same reason, it has been the policy of successive Governments not to intervene in the content of broadcast programmes.
Because of this limitation on the functions of the commission, we have to consider carefully, as several hon. Members have, how best our complaints about programme standards, content, quality and balance and about good taste and decency can be conveyed to those who make the programmes, and how we may obtain a considered reply. I welcome the fact that public meetings will continue to be held. The Home Secretary implied that the governors go to them, but I am told that only the occasional governor goes to the occasional public meeting. I should like to see many of the 12 governors going regularly to far more of these meetings, and they should be given far more publicity. The public, who usually never see or hear a BBC governor—they are remote men and women—could then voice their views about programmes.
There is also the avenue of letters to programme editors and the director-general and the chairman of the governors, and I should like to see more programmes examining the programmes which are broadcast.
ITV has a programme called "Did You See?" which is conducted by Ludovic Kennedy and which analyses, in a fairly lengthy way, the content of programmes. The public are becoming more critical and selective about the services provided. This can only be good for programme standards. The comments made should receive careful consideration from programme makers. If there has been a mistake and it is found that criticism is valid, a correction should be given the fullest possible publicity.
We welcome the resolutions of the governors, particularly on programme standards and proper balance. The aim should be to provide programmes and schedules which offer the widest possible choice for many people rather than those which aim simply to attract and hold the largest possible audience. In the same way, the news services have received special comment in the resolutions. Here I appreciate the difficulty of getting an accurate balance between one viewpoint and another. The remedy could be to give more time for news services so that there is time to explain all the facts, all the views, as is done in America, where they have channels devoted entirely to news and information.
These are complex topics—the balance of programmes, matters of public policy—and they have been dealt with by several hon. Members. The BBC has gone a good way forward in putting these matters in the annex. For the first time they are now incorporated in the charter. We must continue to ensure that the BBC is responsive to the nation's needs and that it is, above all, a public service. The right balance has to be struck between its independence and freedom in the day-to-day conduct of its business and the ultimate control of this House. We must ensure that the BBC continues to be the United Kingdom's major broadcasting authority, providing programmes of a high standard and quality for both majority and minority audiences.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, as is generally the case on this type of occasion. At the end of it I have to pay some attention to the kind of guidelines that are imposed upon the broadcasting authorities to observe the time of night in deciding what sort of coverage to give to the speeches that have been made. One particularly pleasant feature of this debate has been the almost universal—if not wholly universal—expression of approval and satisfaction for the general standards achieved by the BBC under the terms of the charter and licence and agreement that we are proposing to update.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Brinton), speaking with a lot of experience, said that it was impossible, once having worked for the BBC, to stop loving the thing. Others have spoken of the affection that it seems to inspire. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr Rathbone) said that we were a bit too paternalistic towards broadcasting. I do not think that that is right. He spoke of the high standards that the BBC achieves and said that he wanted to keep them. One of the problems that we have to face in this House, and in this type of debate, is that, if we are to acknowledge high standards in the BBC, it can hardly be right to detach those from the basic principles by which the BBC has been governed. My hon. Friend says that we ought to throw all that overboard and that the Government should withdraw, certainly the Home Office should withdraw, and, in so far as there is any Government intervention, it should be that of the Department of Industry or perhaps the Department of Trade. My hon. Friend says that the BBC should be financed by advertising. That is a tenable proposition, but I do not think that there would be much support for it in the House. For my part and the Government's part, I do not think that it is established that anything like the high standards that have been praised in the debate would be achieved if we went down that road.
The broadcasting authorities are possessed of great power to influence their audiences and, therefore, carry great responsibilities in the manner in which they operate. That is why the present licence and agreement, the ministerial prescriptions made under it and the Normanbrook letter require the BBC to maintain certain extremely important standards of programme content. That is why the new licence and agreement maintains those obligations in their entirety and brings into greater prominence those at present imposed by the ministerial prescripttion by incorporating them in the body of the licence and agreement.
Past debates on these issues have ranged widely and this one has been no exception. I shall do my best to drag, sometimes by their heels, some of the comments that have been made into the context of either the charter or the licence and agreement. These are the governing instruments for a major national organisation. They constitute the framework within which the BBC operates. They will continue the life of the BBC until 1996.
The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill), who replied on behalf of the Opposition, said that the Government had not justified the 15-year duration for the proposed new charter and agreement. One of the arguments of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), who has kindly told me that he cannot be present, was the need for continuity, and that is part of the answer that I give to the hon. Lady. With today's greatly increased sophistication in broadcasting and the complexity of the issues that broadcasters have to face, there is an established case for a charter of longer duration. Parliament so decided for the IBA.
I draw some little comfort from the Labour Government's White Paper on broadcasting that was published in 1978. In describing the legislation that they were holding out they stated:
It is envisaged that the legislation and the Royal Charter will govern broadcasting in the United Kingdom throughout the next decade and into the 1990s.
It includes the phrase "into the 1990s." Even at this time of night my mathematics tell me that that takes us up to the 15-year mark. We do not have to justify by very special pleading the desirability of a 15-year duration.
My funds of approval are exhausted by the reference which I have made. The other proposals would not have carried nearly the same support.
The debate has focused in part upon matters which fall within one of the obligations that are set out in the guidelines for the broadcasting authorities—it is common both to the BBC and the IBA—namely to exclude so far as possible matter which offends
good taste or decency or be likely to encourage or incite crime or lead to disorder, or to be offensive to public feeling.
A great deal of the misgivings that have been expressed in the debate have focused upon those guidelines.
Many of my hon. Friends have expressed their unease, especially in the context of Northern Ireland, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) made a notable speech and the difficult judgment that reporters and editors on the spot have to make in deciding what aspect of a story to go for and to what extent it would be right in an overall exercise of good judgment to follow a particular line at any given time. We have been primarily concerned in the guidelines about those people.
The approach which is followed by the Government in maintaining the guidelines from the existing licence and agreement, with the Normanbrook letter, is the right one. I am certain that we are right not to seek to impose governmental control or even some intermediary control upon those who are vested with the responsibility of following those guidelines, who are the governors of the BBC.
The new emphasis on complaints instituted by my right hon. Friend, with the agreement of the governors, will go a long way towards emphasising the view that Parliament expresses, that more attention should be paid to complaints. My right hon. Friend has asked the governors of the BBC to incoporate in their annual report a reference to a note of not only the number but the nature of the complaints made in the past year.
It is of great importance that, if people have complaints, they should send them to the BBC or the new complaints commission, if that seems more appropriate. My right hon. Friend was asked by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely how the two were distinguished. Because it is a matter of general interest, I shall comment on it. Members of the public can complain either to the BBC or to the complaints commission, as they wish, about unjust or unfair treatment or invasion of privacy. The commission will not be able to entertain complaints about general programme standards. It will pass on such complaints to the appropriate broadcasting authority. The remit of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission covers only unjust and unfair treatment or invasion of privacy, not general programme standards.
Therefore, I hope that those who, with some justice in my personal belief, from time to time find ground for complaint will not be content with writing to Members of Parliament, although I know that my colleagues always pass on those matters, but will complain to the authorities.
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) firmly supported the basis of the licence fee for funding the BBC. I am grateful for that. He rightly explained that if one aimed at Government subvention there would be a loss of independence. However, in the end he asked for just that. The sum of £150 million would be needed as a concession to fund the concession for pensioners, let alone the sick and the unemployed, who need help with paying licence fees.
I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) that it is right to arrange the level of pension and to supplement it where necessary with supplementary benefit. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker). Providing blanket concessions for old-age pensioners, who would benefit whether they needed them or not, would open the door to the sort of control by Government which in the end we would all regret.
The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook asked about local radio. He asked about the number of hours that are devoted to locally produced programmes. This matter was dealt with in the third report of the local radio working party. The BBC's local radio services will provide locally originated material—part speech, part music—to the extent that resources permit. For the present, at any rate, they will opt into one or other of the BBC's network services for the remainder of the day.
Existing BBC local radio services have been cut to about 10 hours a day of locally originated broadcasts, in part to help finance new local services. These new local radio services will broadcast locally originated material, initially for about six hours a day. The Government's view is that it is desirable that there should be local radio services, but it is a matter for the broadcasting authorities to determine what degree of priority to give and how much of the funds to allocate to them.
It goes without saying that local radio services have proved their worth and that they contribute towards an identity with local communities. However, it must be for the broadcasting authorities to determine how they are to be financed and what priority they are to get.
As the hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Home Office local radio working party, which examines, in some degree, the way in which such services are developing, does he agree that we shall get a wider view of the community element that should be in local radio only if the range of personnel on the working party is widened? It should include not simply representatives of the BBC and of the ILR.
No doubt that point of view will he noted. However, one does not necessarily have to be a member of the class to be served by the body to hold a valuable view.
Unhappily, I must disagree with my hon. friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Griffiths) over his views on concessionary allowances for old-age pensioners and over his support for advertising revenue. He asked whether the BBC would be permitted, under the new arrangements, to make money out of the sale of video cassettes and so on. I am happy to tell him that it can already do that. I do not invite him to do so tonight, but if he consults article 3(p) of the draft charter he will find that that source of income is included. That is a good thing.
The hon. Member for Stockport, South (Mr. McNally) and other hon. Members mentioned the BBC's external services. There has never been any intention to reduce funds to the world service in English. I agree absolutely with the tributes that have been paid to the quality of the external services. I take the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead about the desirability of hearing such programmes in England. It is not altogether a light-hearted matter to say that the principal purpose of such programmes is that they should be heard in the countries to which they are addressed. It has been a nice bonus that they have been heard in England, because their quality is very high. I agree with what has been said about the amount of approval that they have in Britain.
My hon. and learned Friend was right when he spoke about what would happen when the new transmitter at Orford Ness came into service—with its modern directional aerial—to replace the obsolete wartime transmitter at Crowborough in early 1982. Audibility of the world service in English may be reduced in some parts of the United Kingdom, but the precise effect will not be known until the new transmitter is operating. There are also plans to strengthen world service short-wave transmissions, but again it is not yet possible to say what effect that will have on reception in the United Kingdom. I am advised that there would be substantial financial consequences in changing the transmitter network in order to get uniform audibility of the external service in the United Kingdom. What my hon. and learned Friend has said will be noted but I cannot hold out a great deal of hope for an improvement in the position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North spoke of programme content and of the importance of maintaining a reasonable proportion of home-produced programmes. He complained of a very large amount of American material. He will know that the licence and agreement requires that there shall be a reasonable proportion of home-produced material, and it is important that that should be complied with. Similarly, there is the obligation to provide political balance and a distinction between fact and comment. That is a very important point, and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest also made it. Those points will be carefully noted by the BBC.
I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North for the licence fee as the basis, and I entirely agree with his criticism of the Labour Government, which sought to meet the BBC's difficulties only by increasing the borrowing power instead of enabling the BBC to increase the licence fee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest spoke about Northern Ireland. I trust that his remarks about the need to remember the right to a life as well as the right to know will be carefully noted by the BBC. These are difficult matters of judgment, but his balanced speech made the point with the utmost clarity. It is a most important matter.
I was sorry to miss the speech of the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), but I have a note of what he said. He spoke from a background of great knowledge as a member of the Annan committee. He spoke of the importance of balance, in particular in reference to Northern Ireland. His points will be carefully noted.
Many people in the country have remarked on the very extensive coverage of the funerals of IRA murderers in recent weeks and months. It is not my place to allocate blame, or even criticism, but I am not surprised that those comments have been made, and I am certain that those who carry the responsibility for making judgments in the BBC will take note of them.
The hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) spoke of a constant emphasising of industrial relations in BBC programmes and complained of the use of stereotypes. As my right hon. Friend said in opening the debate, if there are things to complain about, let people complain, and complain at the time. Those who are responsible for making the programmes would welcome that.
I have said what I want to say about the interesting and informed speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes. It was a plea for advertising revenue, and I do not want to say more about that.
I note the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons). Careful note will be taken in the BBC of his point that about four times more money is spent on broadcasting programmes in the Welsh language than is spent on special help for the deaf. In the International Year of Disabled People there is special relevance. I am grateful for what he said against the suggestion that the Government should provide block grant support for the BBC. Audibility in Bradford—which is important for those who live there—is a responsibility of the broadcasting authorities and they will take careful note of what has been said.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Forman) asked whether the guidelines contained in the annex to the licence constitutes the binding part of the agreement. The answer in non-technical terms is that for all practical purposes it does.
My hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) rightly emphasised the need for self-censorship in the BBC and indeed all broadcasting authorities.
The hon. Member for Halifax asked what was the rush about the direct-broadcasting-by-satellite proposals. This is not a White Paper; it is a study. We do not have at the moment answers to many of the questions that it asks. This is a matter of great importance. The new technology is not waiting for us and will not wait for us. Therefore, we want comments fairly quickly. However, my right hon. Friend has said that no decisions will be taken without consulting Parliament.
I should like to end as I began by referring to a matter which concerns large numbers of people in the country and in the House, and that is the question of programme standards. They are fundamental to our concept of public service broadcasting and crucial to the power and the influence of broadcasting in our lives. Given the amount of broadcasting for which the BBC and the IBA are responsible and the breadth of their programme obligations, their task of maintaining standards is not easy one. Indeed, it frequently involves reconciling apparently conflicting obligations. The important point is that we have in this country established public bodies to apply these standards and fulfil these obligations, and we are entitled to look to them to do so. They are bound to make mistakes sometimes, though I doubt whether there would ever be unanimity among the public or among us in the House as to when those mistakes have occurred or in what respects they have occurred.
My right hon. Friend considered, and the board of governors of the BBC has agreed, that it would be right now in the constitutional documents which will extend the life of the corporation for another 15 years to incorporate for all to see the programme standards and obligations by which we rightly set so much store. It is also a reflection of the importance which the Government and the broadcasting authorities attach to programme standards that only a couple of months ago my right hon. Friend asked the authorities to include in their annual reports information about the number and nature of the complaints that they receive and about any action taken in consequence of them. This is an important measure in the area of the accountability of the authorities.
If we attach importance to the quality and range of broadcasting services in this country and to the maintenance of proper standards and programmes, we must attach importance to the role of the authorities. We do not have always to agree with their decisions to know that the concept of a broadcasting authority has served this country well, and we must be careful not to undermine their authority and responsibility, because if we do we shall spoil the public service nature of broadcasting. We shall reduce its range and quality, and we may even cause a decline in programme standards.
The Government believe firmly that the broadcasting authorities, established with the approval of Parliament and vested with appropriately balanced powers and obligations, should remain central to our broadcasting arrangements, and it is this view which is reflected in the draft charter and licence and agreement.