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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Gordon of Strathblane Lord Gordon of Strathblane Labour 6:21 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, it is a nice thought, but I would not like them to hear that because they will be looking for a rise.

The answer is that we concentrate on such earth-shattering issues as Glasgow traffic rather than London traffic. Believe it or not, the people of Glasgow are more interested in hearing about that than the fact that the Blackwall tunnel may be blocked. It is in the self-interests of an operator to concentrate on local activities because that is where he can beat the BBC. Frankly, the BBC is such a professional organisation that we could not take it on at doing what it does extremely well on Radio 1 and Radio 2, and on Radio 4 for that matter. But where we can beat the BBC is by being more local than it is and by appealing to the local community. On that basis, self-interest and public interest coincide. That is what I would like to see happen.

We should not regard common ownership as a bad thing. If I owned three radio services, it would be in my interests to make them all different. I would not want them to be the same. If, on the other hand, three different people owned them, we would probably all zero in on the one most attractive part of the audience and sound very much the same. Let us be quite clear that ownership itself does not adversely affect quality of output. It probably enhances it.

There is another example of a clause where provisions have been slipped in which are in excess of current regulation. I am in the presence of the current chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority. I bow to him and I will put my name to an amendment if he brings one forward. But, as regards advertising, in addition to the provisions already in the Bill that it must not be misleading, harmful and offensive, which are in the 1990 Act, the Government have inserted a catch-all provision of "unsuitable". In other words, if we cannot think of another reason against it we can get it under the heading of unsuitability. That is the kind of catch-all provision from which we are trying to get away.

I take issue on the question of the BBC for three reasons. If someone came down from the planet Zog and we said, "We are trying to converge regulation on all our media but we are going to leave out the biggest player in television and radio", he would think we were off our heads. Yet that is what we are doing.

I also take issue as a strong supporter of the BBC itself. The Government have argued the point by saying, "Yes, we will do it, but we will do so when we come to renew the Charter", which, it should be borne in mind, will take place next year. I am worried that if it is delayed, there could be a backlash against the BBC. It would be much better to do it now, under Ofcom.

I say that for a further reason; that is, it will improve Ofcom itself. It may require changes to the staffing or even the structure of Ofcom if it becomes responsible for the BBC. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, when opening the debate for the Opposition Benches earlier today, mentioned the point made by Nick Harvey MP that Ofcom can muck around with ITV and ILR as much as it likes, but that it is not good enough to touch the BBC. That is quite a frightening statement. If that is how little we think of independent broadcasting in this country, then we are in a very bad way.

I shall canter quickly through some further points on which I shall either move amendments or support other noble Lords in their amendments. As regards foreign ownership, my sole but extremely important objection to that is reciprocity. Others may think that it leads to dumping; I do not know enough about it. What I do know is that if we are going to give up something that the Americans will not give back to us, then frankly we should not do it.

I turn next to ITN. I cannot see the public interest argument against allowing ITV to own ITN as it used to when I was a television reporter. Indeed, it is probably a good thing for the principal customer also to be a shareholder. The customer will then have an interest in the quality of the service as well as the profits generated by it. Incidentally, the question of 20 per cent ownership for control again seems daft. Under that definition the current ITV had five shareholders, all of whom controlled it. That cannot be right. Surely it would be better to return to what is the case with the Radio Authority; namely, a 30 per cent holding. That is what the Stock Exchange regards as triggering a bid.

On the issue of Channel 5, again, I am agnostic about ownership. However, I cannot understand the inconsistency here. In introducing the debate the Minister said that Channel 3 and Channel 5 were very different. Channel 5 has only 6 per cent of the audience while ITV has 24 per cent. Furthermore, Channel 5 has coverage of 80 per cent against coverage by Channel 3 of 100 per cent. Those figures are variable. If Channel 5 were being run by someone with considerable media interests and who chose to promote, the odds are that the figures could be remedied very quickly, at which point the distinction drawn by the Government would be meaningless.

On "must carry/must offer", the Government put clauses into the Bill and then took them out. It should be possible for Ofcom to fix a tariff which would be binding on everyone. BSkyB says that that would not give sufficient flexibility. I would reply to that in the manner of Harold Wilson: one man's discount is another man's premium. There is an interest in us all knowing where we are.

I hope also that Ofcom will regard itself as having a duty of care to ensure that we do not flood the market with more services than it can support, thus reducing quality overall. In the area of broadband the body will have to be proactive if we are to go beyond the two-thirds of the country that even have the possibility of ever accessing it. I live just outside Glasgow, but I am not getting broadband. I have my name down on BT's waiting list and once the list reaches 200 names, BT might think about providing it. While I fully understand the economic rationale, we can forget the idea that broadband is going to sweep the country. It is not going to reach beyond two-thirds of the population unless someone takes action. In the first instance, that someone should be Ofcom.

I doubt whether any other speaker will touch on my final point. The business of licence renewal, whether it be for ITV or radio, has been parked, as it were, by putting it so far in the distance that none of us is exercised about it. That is a daft way to do things. The termination of a contract is a recipe for drying up investment and nothing happening. I should like to see a return to what we had in local radio at its inception; that is, rolling contracts. If you are doing badly, you are given a yellow card. If you have not smartened up within a year, you are off the park. That safeguards the public interest, is fairer to contractors and, I suggest, is the way ahead.