Regulating the diet of digital burgers

September 4, 1998

The average Briton spends more time watching TV than doing anything else other than sleeping - 25 and a half hours per week to be precise. Admittedly, my average Brit is a mean not a median; but, if you include everyone, then we are, beyond a measure of doubt, telly addicts.

If you've been watching at all over the summer you will have seen the huge advertising campaign launched by Sky Digital to alert us to the oncoming television revolution. This time next year there will be up to 230 channels available to choose from. Those who say this will not have an impact on the average Brit do not understand what is going on. Combined with the Internet, digital broadcasting will create a continuous global monitor. Everything will be watchable.

You may, like me, be constantly amazed how the news channels seem to have videos of everything nowadays: the home video of the street in Omagh moments after the bomb, the security cameras capturing James Bulger's kidnap, the Ritz foyer shots of Diana's last moments.

The digital revolution is already happening. Football clubs are launching their own TV channels and motorway traffic jams have their own anchormen, permanently on line. In the digital future, television news editors will not have to rely on TV crews, everything will be available.

Faced with this, I thank God and Lord Reith for the BBC. The public sector broadcast ethos is now more important than at any time since the second world war. It will be the only glue that holds us all together, whether as a nation, community or as global citizens. The BBC's culture and outlook must therefore be of prime concern to Parliament and I for one will be supporting a significant hike in the licence fee to ensure the BBC remains the rock of broadcasting.

That does not mean - before I am pilloried for bashing poverty-stricken pensioners - that I want the public to pay more.

One of the upsides of digital is that the government can auction off the existing analogue wavelengths to mobile phone companies and the like. Conventional wisdom estimates that this will reap a digital windfall of $14 billion, enough to pay for the BBC for seven years.

The real choice facing the Cabinet is whether to intervene in the broadcast market or not. I would like to see the windfall used to provide free television licences for the less well off, and why not a free licence for all pensioners?

We should create a University of Broadcasting, under the charter of the BBC, to become the world centre of excellence of broadcasting training. That university should be driven by the public service broadcasting ethos and it should cover the whole spectrum of skills.

We have to grasp the digital revolution and make it work for all of us. It could increase plurality and enhance freedom and choice. It could become a huge force for education, internationalism and social cohesion. Or it could sell more burgers.

The competition between digital satellite and digital terrestrial is inevitable and good. There will be two competing technologies for receiving the programmes, whatever ministers say. That competition is more akin to gas or electric rather than VHS versus Betamax. In a few years, all sets will be digital so it won't matter. It doesn't really matter what sort of black box you have on top of your television. What matters is what is broadcast on your TV.

Just as Lord Reith found a democratic solution to the dilemma of unfettered, unregulated broadcasting on the one hand or state control on the other, so we must find a solution with digital. Public service has served us well so far and, although I quite like burgers, I don't want too many of them, thank you very much.

Phil Woolas is Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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