Toddlers and the £750,000 Question 

4 June 2018

From ‘Both sides of the Hill’ by Lord (Charles) Hill of Luton, published by William Heinemann in 1964

In recent years, the Post Office has become much more deeply involved in current politics because, to its old responsibilities for postal and telephone services and for communications generally have been added new functions in radio and television. Before Independent Television these were not particularly heavy or controversial, for fortunately the P.M.G. [Postmaster-General] had no responsibility for programme content, apart from its general balance and objectivity, concerning himself with the periodic renewal of the Charter and Licence, with money, with hours of broadcasting, and little else. But when the squalling infant which is Independent Television was thrown into his lap, the picture radically changed. Whereas the Charter and Licence of the B.B.C. were written in most general terms and amplified by an Aide-Memoire in similarly general terms, the new Television Act spelt out his functions in much greater detail. The P.M.G. became involved in advertising codes, “natural breaks”, the proportion of foreign films, and a host of other details.

When I began at the Post Office, although the Television Act was on the Statute Book the transmission of programmes on commercial television had not yet begun. Some of the early troubles had been resolved, but others remained and their solution meant for me a good deal of discussion with the first chairman of the I.T.A., Sir Kenneth Clark. To many, including me, his appointment had seemed an odd one. What he proved by the undoubted courage and wisdom he brought to an appallingly difficult task was that a cultivated mind does not necessarily exclude a capacity for administration. Independent Television owes a very great deal to Kenneth Clark. At the time the B.B.C. still wore the signs of injury and insult, for that is how it had reacted to the creation of its competitor. “Why have you done this to us?” it seemed to be asking. There was a tendency to dub as anti-B.B.C. anyone who did not readily concur with their views. That I had a profound regard for the B.B.C. and its standards, borne of a long association with it, did not entirely save me from this charge. It was all very understandable, provided resentment was not allowed to continue to impair judgement and confidence — as it did at the outset. Mercifully, this phase passed.

One difficulty arose because the two bodies could not agree to share the same transmitting masts. Then there was the question of helping parents to put their children to bed. To meet criticisms made during the Parliamentary debates, there had been imposed on both broadcasting agencies — and so on the public — a prohibition on television between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. It had two objects. The first was to enable parents more easily to get their young offspring to bed; the second was to make sure that both competitors started from scratch in their battle for the evening viewing public. This restriction seemed to me to be absurd, and I said so. It was the responsibility of parents, not the State, to put their children to bed at the right time. Many people got home from work between 5 and 6 p.m. and it was unreasonable to deny them the opportunity of watching television between 6 and 7 p.m. I preferred that the State should have no control over television hours, though I recognized that, while the B.B.C. is financed from a licence fee decided by the Government, there is a case for a control of hours to ensure that competition between it and commercial television is fair. But this evening veto seemed to be a grandmotherly interference with people’s freedom and I invited the B.B.C and the I.T.A. to agree to its abolition. The B.B.C. would not agree. It would not even agree to a compromise suggestion that, as a first step, the break should be reduced to half an hour. A few days later, the governors of the B.B.C. passed a resolution strongly in favour of the maintenance of the whole hour of silence. I abolished it altogether.

In September 1955, six months after my appointment, Independent Television was launched in the old-world glory of a Guildhall dinner, televised on the new channel: I made a pompous little speech. From the beginning, the new system, created with staggering skill and speed, operated with hardly a hitch. But the costs were immense, the advertising income was slow to grow and those who had put up the money had a testing time.

Although some of the big investors stood the strain well, one or two began to show signs of nerves as the months passed and the losses mounted. One big investor got out (and must have regretted it ever since). There was no talk about a “licence to print money” in those dark days. In the summer of 1956, a deputation from some programme companies, led by Sir Edwin Herbert, came to ask me if the £750,000 [£19.5m in 2018, allowing for inflation] which the Government was empowered under the Act to make available could be paid at once to the programme companies. It would help in a serious situation, they said, even if it could not save it altogether.

I concluded that I could not recommend this to my colleagues, on the grounds that such losses had, or should have, been anticipated, that they constituted their investment, that this amount was chicken-feed in comparison with their losses, and that in time the position would change. A committee of Conservative backbenchers strongly criticized me for this decision. Sir Kenneth Clark pressed me to change it, on quite different grounds, for with him it was a matter of good faith, rather than money. I gathered that for him, this was a “resignation” issue. In his view, David Kilmuir, then Home Secretary, de la Warr, and Gammans had used words during the debates on the Bill which amounted to an undertaking that the money would be made available and, unless this undertaking was kept, he would feel bound to resign his chairmanship. Miss Dilys Powell, a member of the Authority, actually tendered her resignation in protest. Kenneth Clark argued that to reject the claim would make it virtually impossible for the Authority to carry out its statutory obligation to ensure balance and high quality. In his view, £515,000 [£13.5m] should be made available for 1957-58. I consulted my colleagues who decided that they would make available the sum of £100,000 [£2.5m] for one year. In fact, not a penny of this authorized payment was ever collected. Before this could happen, the position had completely changed and the upward climb to profits had begun. These early days are worth recalling when people complain of the high profits which made later on.

A luncheon given by the Postmaster General, Ernest Marples, for all ex-Postmasters General on 21 June 1957. Front row, left to right Viscount Dunrossil, formerly W.S. Morrison; the late Viscount Samuel; Ernest Marples; Earl Attlee; the late Viscount Crookshank. Back row, left to right: Earl of Listowel; Wilfred Paling; Ness Edwards; Lord Hill of Luton.

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