Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 8:36 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of David Cairns David Cairns Labour, Inverclyde 8:36 pm, 6th April 2010

So many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, began their speeches by saying that it was likely to be their last speech in the Chamber. I fervently hope that this is not my last speech in the Chamber, as I sincerely hope to be returned on 6 May. If I am not and the good people of Inverclyde elect someone else, so be it and good luck to them, because it has been a blast.

The casual observer of today's debate and of the whole process of this debate could be forgiven for thinking that the Bill contained one big measure and lots of piddling little things that do not really matter. That has been reflected in the content of many of the speeches, and I hope to buck that trend by devoting the bulk of my comments to things other than illegal file sharing or downloading. I have become a bit frustrated at some of the extreme language being used by those on both sides of this debate. It seems that the Bill either protects vital creative industries people, living from hand to mouth in garrets, from rapacious internet service providers who will not get off their backsides to do anything about theft or is a draconian attack on the very fabric of the internet itself by fat-cat record company bosses hellbent on protecting their interests and so on.

My hon. Friend Mr. Watson, who is not in his place, rejected the analogy or metaphor suggested by my hon. Friend Mr. Simon relating to the Sith and Darth Vader. He is back in his place now-I was just referring to him as he appeared-so I can tell him that he is right to take issue with a metaphor with which he does not agree. He may intervene if he wishes, but I wonder what he would say to a constituent of mine from whom I received a e-mail today saying that he was not going to vote for me or anyone else in my constituency in the general election because he thought that what the Government were doing was the same as what the ayatollahs in Iran and the geriatric dictatorship in China do to curtail internet freedom. That is clearly bonkers-I could be insulting my constituent here, but he has already said that he is not going to vote for me-and profoundly unhelpful. Those of us who may have doubts or reservations about the efficacy of the particular method that the Government are adopting to deal with the issue are not enticed to support those efforts by being told that if we support the Government, we are akin to the ayatollahs or the despots of Beijing. Such language is particularly unhelpful.

I happen to think that the Government are on the right track here, although I do not know whether the proposed measures will work. I tend toward the view that they will probably be less efficacious than draconian or dictatorial, but I am happy to be persuaded of all the necessary safeguards that have been suggested. I join the consensus in expressing regret at the lack of a Committee stage when we could have tested some of the proposals with probing amendments and so on. Having said all that, I do not wish to say more about illegal file sharing or downloading because I wish to discuss other parts of the Bill that have not been adequately addressed so far in this debate.

I want to focus my remarks on the parts of the Bill dealing with broadcasting policy and issues, especially the role of Channel 4 and the future of regional news on channel 3. I shall declare a couple of non-pecuniary interests: First, I am the chair of the all-party group on Scottish broadcasting and, secondly, I am most of the way through an Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship with the broadcasters. I have been hosted by STV, Channel 4 and now the BBC.

The Bill contains very important measures for Channel 4, but the one thing it does not contain is a proposal to privatise the channel, which I warmly welcome. I also genuinely warmly welcome the clear, unequivocal commitment from the shadow Secretary of State, in response to an intervention from me, that a future Conservative Government will rule out privatising Channel 4. That is an important and clear commitment, and it means that we can now afford Channel 4 the comfort and security of knowing that its unique structure-essentially, it is the first public-private partnership-will be guaranteed. That will afford Channel 4 a degree of comfort as it makes its plans for the future. However, I must say to the Opposition Front-Bench team that when the shadow Secretary of State gave that firm commitment not to privatise Channel 4, the looks on the faces of some Conservative Back-Back Members did not betray uniform happiness and delight, although personally I welcome the commitment.

I am also a political realist, however, and I know that after the election, whoever wins, the beady eyes of the Treasury will be scanning the entirety of the public sector, looking for savings, cuts, efficiencies-or whatever language we use-and I absolutely guarantee that, during that process, some bright spark in the Treasury will come up with a plan to privatise Channel 4. It is inevitable. In parenthesis, I add that I am pleased that Channel 4 has recruited its own set of beady eyes from the Treasury in the form of its new chairman, who hopefully will see off this encroaching threat. However, that proposal will be made, so I am pleased that we have a clear political steer from all the parties that it will not see the light of day in this place.

The Bill gives us a very good opportunity to restate the importance and significance of Channel 4 to the UK's broadcasting environment. It has made an outstanding contribution over nearly 30 years through its original, vibrant, creative, groundbreaking, sometimes irritating and often controversial content. However, it has also made an incredibly important contribution to the industry. It has fostered and helped to develop a thriving and vibrant independent television production sector in this country, but it does not always get the credit for that.

As I said, Channel 4's structure is unique. It is a publicly owned company and does not have shareholders, but has to make its living in the marketplace. That dynamic is very important and explains why, along with the BBC and purely commercial channels, there is room for Channel 4. I am happy, in a rare moment of cross-party consensus-not some underhand conspiracy-to say to the Conservative Front-Bench team that that success is testimony to the work of the previous Conservative Government who set it up as public-private partnership. Long may it continue.

We have heard that the Bill proposes to update Channel 4's remit, and as Mr. Foster pointed out-presumably because he read the same Channel 4 briefing as I did-in 1982, when it was founded, Channel 4 was a single linear television channel delivering all of its public service broadcasting content through one outlet. It was a single television station. That situation is unrecognisable today, with E4, More4, 4Music, Film4 and all the online content, none of which counts towards Channel 4's remit. We need to refresh the remit for the 21st century. More and more of Channel 4's PSB content will be delivered away from the core channel, and much of it will be online and will never actually be broadcast on the core channel. That is why it is important that we refresh the remit.

Brief mention has been made in passing to the importance of the remit embracing Film4. That is extremely important. Until I did my Industry and Parliament Trust fellowship placement with Channel 4, I imagined that Film4 was a huge entity, with lots of people working for it and a budget of tens of millions of pounds, but it is not. It consists of a handful of people-incredibly dedicated and inspired individuals-with a budget somewhere south of £10 million. They have made an astonishing contribution to the UK film industry, with the success of "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The Last King of Scotland", among others. The Film4 people have told me that they wanted film to be included in the remit because they have seen their budgets shrinking and they know that what they have done so far does not count in regard to the current remit. They feel that film's inclusion in the remit would protect them from further cuts, and I think that that is right.

One important thing that the Government have not included in Channel 4's new remit certainly merits an airing here tonight. There is no mention of the channel's obligations to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. That is a source of extreme annoyance and controversy in the independent production sector throughout the UK. I know from my dealings with those in the independent production sector in Scotland, for example, that they do not feel that they get a fair crack of the whip from Channel 4.

Channel 4's response would probably be that it had never been told that part of its remit was to foster independent TV production sectors on a quota basis throughout the nations and regions of the UK. Channel 4's nations and regions supremo-the redoubtable Stuart Cosgrove, who is based in Glasgow-would probably also point out that the channel commissions 35 per cent. of its original production outside London, involving some £120 million in a good year.

Channel 4 is not the BBC, however. It does not employ lots of programme makers that it can move around the country, so it cannot meet those targets easily unless there is a vibrant, thriving creative industry sector coming forward with commissions in the nations and regions. We therefore have a bit of a chicken and egg situation. I am passionately committed to increasing TV production outside London, and I believe that Channel 4 has a role to play in that regard. I hoped that the Bill would have a Committee stage because we could have kicked around some of these ideas at that point. We are not going to have an opportunity to do that, however.

Having said that, it is incredibly important that the BBC has made a commitment to out-of-London broadcasting. It has made commitments in Cardiff, and through Media City in Salford. It has also made a commitment through the £188 million of investment in Pacific Quay in Glasgow. That is an incredibly important commitment that will do a great deal to foster an independent TV production sector in Scotland, and perhaps we will see more commissions from Channel 4 as a result.

I want to turn to the proposals for the independently funded news consortiums-the IFNC project-on channel 3. This is a thorny issue, and the Conservatives have indicated their staunch opposition to the policy again this afternoon. It is important to remember how we reached this point. We reached it because ITV stated categorically to the Government that it was not prepared to continue to make regional news at a loss. Ofcom has allowed ITV in England and Wales to reduce its regional news output and massively to extend the geographical scope of the regions. In my view-and in the view of many others-this has led to a dilution of the quality of regional news on ITV.

The Government believe passionately that there is a democratic imperative to ensure that people throughout the country are not solely reliant on the BBC for the provision of regional news, and they are right. When Michael Grade was chief executive and chair of ITV, he set his face against any public subsidy for ITV in this area. He said, "We want out of this. We'll give you a half-hour slot in our schedule, and you can put in it whatever you want." That is where the whole IFNC project had its genesis. However, we now hear from ITV's new chairman that ITV is not entirely convinced that that was the right thing to do. It does not want to give up a valuable half-hour slot in its schedules with no guarantees about the quality or the revenue involved, and it now wants to come back into the business.

If IFNCs are to be ditched as part of what is going on behind closed doors between those on the Front Benches as part of the wash-up, it is imperative that all the parties say how they intend to fund regional news on channel 3. There could be a market solution to this question. Perhaps if the contract rights renewal regime were to be scrapped-as I think it should be; its regulation has long since served its purpose-that revenue could be used to help channel 3. Perhaps product placement could also help. The Government are going somewhat in that direction, although I think that they are being too timid. None the less, product placement on ITV would be an innovation, and perhaps caution would be wise. It may be that if we address the issue of advertising minutage, all these things together will bring increased revenue to ITV. That is well and good, but ITV must then fulfil its side of the bargain and say that it will use that money to invest in original content in the UK and to support and sustain regional news on ITV. If that is the deal, fine. I can live with it, but what we cannot live with is independently funded news consortiums being ditched with absolutely no understanding of how channel 3-ITV, and I include STV and UTV-are to be funded.

As I have said, the Bill deals with incredibly important broadcasting issues. Everyone has a view on the telly, and 99 per cent. of our constituents have at least one telly. The Bill will have an important effect on ITV news and Channel 4, which is why I hope that, whatever deal is done on illegal file sharing, the whole Bill does not get derailed. It is vital to refresh and update Channel 4's remit and it is vital to have some clarity on how ITV is to proceed in the crucial continuation of regional programming and news in the devolved nations as well.

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