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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:41 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Harris of High Cross Lord Harris of High Cross Crossbench 7:41 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, there is clearly much to welcome in the Bill. I particularly rejoice that it proposes a further measure of liberalisation in the market by loosening or removing state regulation. We have seen that process already in telecom, as we have heard, and in energy, air travel, financial markets and similar dynamic spheres of economic activity, of which broadcasting and the printed media are leading examples.

I have often regretted that the House is not more backward-looking. Who now cares to remember, and draw lessons from remembering, the world of the 1950s, when what we called "wireless" was jealously monopolised by the dear old BBC? The menu was confined to Home and Light Services, with restricted hours of broadcasting, later supplemented by the Third Programme for high-brows. The BBC defended its monopoly on grounds of limited wavelengths, which was largely bogus even in the days before the introduction of frequency modulation. The only competition was from Radio Luxembourg and sundry pirate radio stations. On television, the peasants were permitted two BBC channels until the 1950s, when Churchill dared to permit a commercial programme, which old Labour instantly pledged to abolish the moment that it came into power.

It is central to my analysis, and to my challenge to much that we hear from the Liberal Democrats, that all the remarkable progress that we have seen in communications in the past couple of decades owes absolutely nothing to politicians or governments of any party, not even the Liberal Democrats. Like all material advance, the progress starts from innovative engineers, scientists and others. Yet their groundwork would be barren until fertilised by entrepreneurs—they are fearsome characters in Liberal Democrat eyes—prepared to invest their capital in the hope of profit, but at the risk of loss.

Of course, governments have a vital role in setting the framework within which the competitive system best operates. The Bill is part of that legal framework, and our chief task is to judge whether the proposed rules are appropriate to one of the most dynamic fields of economic endeavour. In exercising that judgment, our watchwords should not be caution and safety first, but confidence and freedom. Above all, we should avoid the risk of weakening the springs of future enterprise.

On the controversial issue of foreign ownership of broadcasting licences, the Bill removes antiquated restrictions. I gather that the Liberal Democrats wish to reverse that, yet what could be more liberal or democratic than opening a market to the widest possible global competition and talent, without nervous, narrow, tit-for-tat governments trying to exclude other nationalities?

The Bill has gone some way towards liberalisation on newspaper mergers, by removing the need for prior consent of the Secretary of State and the threat of criminal sanctions. But why should the Bill include a role for Ofcom, which has neither the knowledge nor the experience of the industry and, as a statutory regulator, can control the content of licensed media? I caught a whiff of anxiety on that in something that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and my noble friend Lord Currie said earlier.

As an economist, I enormously welcome the whole idea of trading in the radio spectrum, long delayed and overdue. I also welcome the power of Ofcom to fine the BBC for unfairness and infringements of privacy. However, I oppose the provision that the BBC governors should have the last word on its commitment to impartiality. Why should the BBC be judge and jury in its own court? On a central issue in British politics—a referendum on the euro, which would dwarf all other issues—the BBC must be checked from continuing as what my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch calls "the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation". He has repeatedly presented what seems incontrovertible, independent and professional evidence of sustained bias from the BBC on the European Union, yet the governors have blithely continued to display a total lack of interest.

In our debates at later stages of the Bill, dare I venture to urge the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and what he said was his serried army of supporters, to ponder how far it is either liberal or democratic to seek to punish pioneers in the competitive TV stakes such as Sky, which has succeeded most conspicuously in widening choice? In responding to the Queen's Speech, a Liberal Democrat spokesman in another place acknowledged:

"Technology is changing fast and Britain must keep up with the game".

However, on Second Reading, the same MP hinted heavily that Mr Rupert Murdoch should be kept out of Channel 5 at all costs, despite its low viewing figures that he might be able to improve.

I find myself wondering, from a Liberal Democrat perspective, whether the aim of broadcasting is to serve customers or exclude entrepreneurs of whom party men frequently disapprove? In much the same spirit, a leading Liberal Democrat said that,

"the Government still relies too much on a rigorous competition regime to deliver the goods. Radio, television and newspapers cannot rely on market forces alone to deliver quality, diversity and choice".

Rigorous competition? Market forces alone? I find myself wondering what would be left of either if the Liberal Democrats had their paternalistic and restrictive way.