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Communications Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:48 pm on 25th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Bragg Lord Bragg Labour 7:48 pm, 25th March 2003

My Lords, I wish to begin by declaring an interest. I work as a programme maker for Granada Television. I also work as a broadcaster for BBC Radio 4. I have worked in radio and television for more than 40 years, all of it in public service broadcasting. Like many noble Lords, I greatly welcome the broad and complex Bill, and wish it well.

It is to the public service heartland of television that I will address my remarks. My aim is to test the Bill against what in my opinion are the interests of public service broadcasting. I shall put it through that prism which I and millions of others believe has served and continues to serve viewers and listeners in this country so well.

Public service broadcasting in our society, after a patrician beginning, has come to stand for a system that guarantees, among other things, that it will deliver at all times a diversity and quality that the market may or may not deliver, often understandably. It is also based, crucially, on the conviction that the public service sector should be big and powerful.

Our broadcasting system is founded on the belief and the positive evidence from practice that an appropriate degree of regulation is necessary for the widest choice to be offered to the public, and for the public to be, unashamedly, offered opportunities for continuing education and enlightenment, original entertainment and comedy. It is also founded on the belief that the public should be properly informed about civic and political matters, domestic and international—a vital part, as my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane said, of the democratic process. It is an ideal uniquely conspicuous for its proven performance and its wide acceptance in our country.

One of the strengths of public service broadcasting has been the competition for public service broadcasting. Over the past 40 years at least and increasingly since the 1980s, the BBC—the licence fee-funded cornerstone—has had to compete with ITV and then Channel 4, which has competed in strict public service terms in money, manpower and commitment. I believe there is no reason why that cannot be maintained. It could be said that the BBC needs ITV and Channel 4 every bit as much as Wellington needed Blucher at Waterloo.

The BBC is the overwhelmingly mighty and key public service champion and it holds the ring. Under its present bold leadership, it holds it well. Greg Dyke was rightly praised in the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Alli. But I would argue that its own public service reach is buttressed by—perhaps even dependent on—the public service commercial broadcasting channels, ITV and Channel 4, whose interests, I believe, have been rather neglected with possibly serious unintended consequences in the Bill. Were the BBC to be left as the sole public service broadcaster, it would, I am convinced, gradually wither into an over-worthy marginal player, overburdened with public responsibility and isolated from the mix of market and regulation which has helped it to thrive.

A key question is whether the BBC should be a full part of Ofcom, to which all good fortune, and to the noble Lord, Lord Currie, all good fortune. The BBC is already included in tiers 1 and 2. It runs its programmes subject to the usual laws of the land; its own form of governance has served it long and, on the whole, well; and there is evidence that recently it has been strengthened. This is a difficult one, especially as the BBC Charter review and renewal will soon be upon us. And it can be argued that Ofcom, in its first years, will have enough to do without attempting to absorb the governance in one swallow of more than 40 per cent of British broadcasting which is already working well.

Then there is a concern about the monopoly of taste. Logic says that both the BBC and Ofcom would be mutually stronger were they to merge. But for two or three years I would be like Mr Asquith and would wait and see. Nor am I persuaded that the BBC needs the attentions of the NAO, but it, like much else, must wait for the Committee stage.

The merger between Carlton and Granada is going ahead, subject to the Competition Commission. It is an anomaly at least and extraordinary at most that, of all the major advanced democracies, Britain is the only one not to have produced an international television company, other than the BBC, whose primary purpose is to serve the British licence-fee payers at home—those who support it. Whether or not your Lordships approve of the major European and American companies, the fact is that, outside the BBC, we are far too small to compete. Our historical regional structure has tied us down in this area and held us back. I believe that keeping the BBC as the sole international player puts an unfair and potentially damaging burden on its raison d'etre and its resources.

That merger has been referred to the Competition Commission, which is to judge the size of the market. But what market do we mean? Do we mean only the terrestrial television market or the whole media market? Some advertisers have expressed anxiety, of course, and their views deserve to be heard. Yet I believe that advertisers themselves surely need, and will appreciate, one big commercial public-minded company which delivers the unique portfolio of massive audiences and cracking public-service specialist programmes.

So what is the best for the public good here? Is it to continue with relatively small and inevitably fractious players—pawns on any international chessboard—or to give the Carlton-Granada couple the benefit of the doubt and, suitably regulated, as they are so used to being, encourage them to be fast at home and let loose abroad?

I move on to the question of whether ITV should own its own news—again, like every other major broadcaster in the world and, again, I suspect, there is prejudice that ITV is not quite to be trusted. That puts it at an unfair disadvantage. Both ITV and ITN believe that, in retaining rules that guarantee a fragmented ownership structure for ITN, independent news is less likely to be sustained as a proper competitive force to the BBC and, now, Sky. ITV also believes that, were it to own ITN outright, it could combine national and international news more effectively with the wholly owned regional news service, which is very important in this country, providing a full competitive and comprehensive news alternative to the BBC.

One role of public service, regionally anchored commercial television is perhaps to be the third force between what could otherwise be a bare-knuckled contest between BskyB and the BBC. Much of that is highlighted in the ownership rules for Channel 5. My noble friend Lord Puttnam, whom I congratulate on his scrutiny committee, has been eloquent and passionate on the matter and I am in his camp. So it seems are my noble friends Lord McNally and Lady Jay, who also gave powerful speeches.

My fear is the domino effect. By massive and unprecedented cross-promotion—and why not?—and combined buying and selling—and why not?—a News Corporation take-over of Channel 5 could quickly double or even treble its current 6 per cent share. That could only have severe effects on the public service remit of the BBC, ITV and, most crushingly of all, on Channel 4, which would have nowhere to go. Briefly, I believe that all of them would have to jettison most of their expensive and restrictive public service obligations to keep audiences and just to survive. They cannot be expected to conspire in their own obliteration.

Finally, I turn to the subject of the regions. Noble Lords will have heard often enough that ITV makes more regional programmes than BBC1 and BBC2 combined. At present, and more importantly I believe, more than three-quarters of all television production is in London. Surely that matter must be addressed. One way is for the BBC to allow ITV regional companies to bid for programmes as independents. We hear that the BBC is under-quota. From working for Border Television and Tyne Tees Television, I know how much it means for people at a local level to receive other national channels.

There will be no conflict of interest. I have heard the BBC complain that there are not enough good independents. There are in the regions, and a generous pro-bono BBC would look at this possibility with an open mind. Regional television enriches us all. It provides skilled employment; it fortifies local identity; it keeps talent near its roots; and it can produce work of a flavour found nowhere else.

There is much more to be said on a range of subjects, but that will have to wait for the Committee stage. My basic concern—one which is, I know, shared by many of your Lordships and by many people in this country—is that in our broadcasting the very best be encouraged and that excellence be given space and resources. We should show all that is finest in our culture and make it available on the most democratic medium ever known.

How do we retain the system that produces that? How do we let it breathe and grow and not simply preserve it and make a Miss Havisham of public service, but enrich it further and, above all, pass on what we have had to succeeding generations? The Bill, with some amendments, makes that possible.