Campaign Archive


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12 Jan 1998:Column 120


Despite its shortcomings, the BBC has recognised the educational opportunities of radio. Currently, 84 per cent. of primary schools order the BBC’s school tapes. They would benefit enormously from a more comprehensive provision broadcast directly to them.

Sally Ward from theSheffieldcentre has listed other advantages, such as teaching English as a second language, and teaching blind children and children with special needs. Radio is especially beneficial to hospital-bound children. It provides back-up to parents and carers while they are looking after children. Muslim girls could also benefit, because, for cultural reasons, they do not have access to mainstream activities outside the school curriculum. Homework clubs could also benefit enormously, according to Sally Ward’s research.

In my opinion, the BBC has not done nearly enough. It is our major public sector broadcaster. Its chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, in his introduction to last year’s annual report, re-emphasised the ethos of public service broadcasting in the digital age. He said:

“As the BBC enters the digital age, some fear that it may lose sight of its core purposes amid the excitement of new services and commercial ventures. Let me be clear. Despite all the changes . . . the BBC is, and will remain, a public service broadcaster.”

Despite that, children, who represent 20 per cent. of the population, are excluded from BBC provision.

Arguments about the failure of children’s radio in the past do not hold water. Radio 5’s initial launch saw some increase in children’s services, but the general public, teachers and children were not aware of them, because they were not promoted. In any event, the ratings for radio under public service broadcasting should not be the be-all and end-all, as Sir Christopher Bland said. I am told by the BBC that there are never more than 9,000 people listening to classical music on Radio 3 through the night. As we enter the digital age, with a greater number of specialist channels, the argument about ratings for the public service sector becomes weaker.

I have emphasised the need for a children’s channel. In the digital age, parts of channels rather than full channels will become the norm. We should build support for that now; the BBC is considering it, and should develop it further. There is support in the House for that idea.

In the past, many hon. Members signed the early-day motion bemoaning the plight of “Children’s Hour” and “Listen with Mother”. The BBC’s ethos is that of a public sector broadcaster, and it is in its interest to provide a children’s service. When the World Service is attacked or under threat, politicians and the BBC rush to its defence. How much stronger the BBC would be if it had a children’s channel.

Commercial radio has the possible use of sections of the analogue channels. We know that 225 has technical difficulties, but perhaps regional use and local, short-term licences could be considered. We also know that, with the advent of digital, at least four national channels will be available. I would urge the Radio Authority and its members to look at the strong option of providing these opportunities for children’s radio.

The commercial arguments that have dogged the campaign in the past do not hold water, especially bearing in mind the fact that the criteria for the award of the franchise involve the totality of the multiplex, not just individual channels within it. Indeed, variety on the multiplex is a requirement of the award of the licences.

12 Jan 1998 : Column 121

There are many opportunities for children’s broadcasting. The millennium dome as a centre for children’s activities and for the digital revolution could provide a superb platform for children’s broadcasting. The new opportunities funding scheme being launched by the Government for school support could provide a source of money for research, for testing and–perhaps in the long term–for a sustained radio channel in partnership with the commercial sector.

Radio is cheap and accessible to all. It is a great educational tool. Radio helps youngsters’ imagination and helps them develop a sense of identity. Radio, in short, is the best medium for children. Indeed, it is the best medium for most people; and it is the least expensive to access. I urge the Government to consider these ideas. I urge the Radio Authority and the BBC to improve children’s radio services. The Government’s quite proper efforts to improve literacy and numeracy among youngsters could be given a tremendous boost by radio.

Most of all, radio is available to all children. The stories to which we listen as children stay with us for the rest of our lives. The personal and educational development that radio affords sustains us through life. I urge Members and Ministers–I thank them for their support thus far–to think about these ideas, and about how we can co-ordinate children’s radio in future.


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