Orders of the Day — Broadcasting Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:47 pm on 18th December 1989.

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Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands , Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 7:47 pm, 18th December 1989

My hon. Friends have already made much of the fundamental case against the Bill, so, in the short time available, I shall concentrate on its impact on Welsh television and broadcasting.

In one sense, I felt a measure of relief in looking at the Bill, at least in regard to the provisions relating to S4C. In general, those clauses have accepted the continuing role of S4C. The road has not been easy as a difficult and delicate balance has to be struck in Welsh television. In my view, S4C has been successful in the remit that Parliament gave it when it was established—to provide a comprehensive service for the Welsh language.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to two aspects of the Bill which might endager that success. I shall deal with one now and one later in my remarks. First, during the 1990s, S4C will be greatly dependent on the buoyancy and impact of advertising. If that advertising declines, as many forecasts suggest, there may be a financial crisis for S4C somewhere in the mid-term of its next period of service. Therefore, I hope that the Government will consider the concept of a safety net to deal with such a problem, should it arise. I shall make my second point about S4C later in my speech, as it relates to the role and relationship of Channel 5 to Welsh broadcasting and Welsh television.

Having made those few placatory remarks, on the central issue of the auctioning of franchises and the licensing of the one commercial television station in Wales—it will therefore be not only our regional but national commercial station—I share every one of the fears, worries and concerns that have been expressed, not only for the reasons given by my hon. Friends but for the further reason mentioned briefly by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). At least, under the current system, a television company that seeks the powerful monopolistic commercial television franchise in Wales must justify its presence in Wales. Its studios, board of directors and supervisory management must all belong to and identify with the society that they serve.

The Bill provides for programmes of a regional character, but there is not one provision that will compel the highest bidder for a regional or national franchise to have a regional or national presence in Wales or oblige its board of directors or supervisory management to identify and have roots with the region or nation that they plan to serve. I am glad to say that, under the present arrangements, because the franchise is for HTV West and HTV Wales, the IBA has insisted on dual representation at board and supervisory level and at programme and production level.

I shall no doubt continue to have many quarrels with HTV; there is bound to be creative tension in the relationship between a local politican and the local media. I have no brief to speak for HTV Wales, but I cannot deny that it is rooted in Wales, that it identifies with Wales, that its management are Welsh and that it has a major regional and national presence. I frequently quarrel with it, but I cannot deny its Welshness, its sense of identity, its sense of belonging and its roots in the society from which its money comes. There is not one provision in the Bill that will ensure that the highest bidder for a franchise will have such a presence, such roots or such an identity.

The lack of identity is reflected in the watchdog arrangements. Except for one measly paragraph at the bottom of the lengthy schedule 1, there is no provision for the ITC in Wales to establish a regional or national presence. I hope that the Minister will assure us that it will have a Welsh identity. Will there be an advisory committee, or a sensitive and able directorate such as that represented by Mr. Eirion Lewis and his staff at the Welsh IBA? The Bill offers no assurance of that, merely a paragraph saying that it may be possible to establish some advisory committee structure.

The public are shut out of such operations. At least under the existing arrangements, however flawed they might be, when franchises came up for renewal there was some attempt at public consultation. The viewers served by the franchise holder were able to express their views. The system may have been flawed and may not have operated as effectively as it should have, but at least a process of public consultation was required.

The Bill makes no provision for proper public consultation on decisions about who shall hold the licence in a region or, in our case, in Wales. Therefore, a large proportion of the Welsh public will be shut out of taking part or being involved in any shape or form in the process of deciding who shall control the national commercial monopoly in Wales and what programmes and schedules it offers.

I want to bring to the attention of the House a matter that has not been discussed so far—the function and role of Channel 5. I have a map showing its predicted coverage and the fact that significant and important parts of the Principality will not receive it. I am sure that the constituency of hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) will not be covered, but neither will most of the valley communities. Most of our television is received through relay stations, and if the proposed system for Channel 5 goes ahead, significant areas of the Principality—and, indeed, of the rest of Britain—will not be covered by it.

The figure of 70 per cent. coverage for Channel 5 covers many problems, but I want to explain to the House the impact that that may have on the delicate balance and consensus that has been achieved on broadcasting and television in Wales. At present, S4C is an alternative to Channel 4. There are many frustrations among people who want to see Channel 4 programmes in Wales, but fortunately we can say that sooner or later, Channel 4 programmes will appear on S4C. However, some of its scheduling is capricious, to say the least. If, on top of that, many people in Wales find that the fifth channel will not be available, the careful and delicate consensus that we have achieved may be destabilised. I can hear the telephone calls coming in now saying, "What is this talk about choice? I couldn't get Channel 4 and now I can't get Channel 5." Many people along the south Wales coast are turning their eyes and aerials to the Mendips to avoid S4C and to obtain Channel 4. Many communities have not done so and many will not want to do so, but if they have to turn their eyes and aerials to the Mendips to get Channel 5, their anger and frustration will rise and the careful balance that we have achieved in the Principality may be broken.

I should like to refer briefly to the interesting article written by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), in which he described the Bill as being "towards a thicker Britain". There are many variations on that, because I think that it may lead towards a duller Britain. I was reminded of one of the great 18th-century satirists, Alexander Pope. In his poem, "The Dunciad", he described the Empress of Dulness in the following terms: See now, what Dulness and her sons admire;See! what the charms, that smite the simple heartNot touch'd by Nature and not reach'd by Art. That could be an epitaph to the Bill, unless we are able to change the hearts and minds not only of the Empress of Dulness but of her sons, too.