Broadcasting

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:43 pm on 21st May 1981.

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Photo of Mr Tom McNally Mr Tom McNally , Stockport South 8:43 pm, 21st May 1981

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.