One crumb of comfort which could be drawn from the dismal White Paper on Broadcasting (Broadcasting in the 90s: HSO £7.20) is this. Thatcherism cannot and will not work. Unfortunately, the opposition parties, including the Lib-Dems, are in no position to expose these internal contradictions, not because they are in a minority in the House, but because they are at sixes and sevens themselves, the wavelengths which they have made their own.

The opposition to the White Paper has so far been orchestrated by those who have most to lose, the BBC and the IBA, trying to defend their duopoly against all the new challenges, of which Mr. Hurd's muddled mind is but one. But their old positions of privilege are indefensible nowadays, which is why in a Channel 4 debate on The Future of British Television so able an advocate of their interests as John Mortimer was left burbling about 'quality' as if he (and they) owned the stuff.

After so much public discussion, nobody had managed to nail or indeed screw the government, even though Mr. Hurd has drilled the holes in his own arguments, placed in the Rawlplugs himself and handed the screwdrivers around to anyone with wit enough to pick them up and turn the handles.

These flaws are apparent early on, namely in the second paragraph of the summary introduction. 'In this as in other fields consumers will rightly insist on safeguards which will protect them and their families from shoddy wares and exploitation', thus suggesting that it is as easy to detect defective programmes as washing machines that don't work. In a few limited senses, this analogy may hold. Nobody would want misleading advertising or programmes which purport to be fact but are lies or fiction.

Mr. Hurd, however, takes this argument to an absurd extreme. In the Consumer Protection Requirements (6.10), he states that channels may not broadcast material which is inherently unacceptable', by being, for example. offensive to public feeling. But public feeling cannot be defined. Will public feeling be that which the government of the day deems to be public feeling? And what will happen to those programmes which challenge a popular point of view, perhaps causing offence in the process?

Has any British government ever claimed such a licence to censor? Even the Lord Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays would sometimes come out of his paddock at Ascot to explain what he regarded as offensive; and his office was abolished as an anti-democratic anachronism in 1968. What makes this whole passage (6.10) doubly extraordinary is that it comes at a time it cannot be enforced, and it destroys the philosophical justification for having a proliferation of channels in the first place.

If the Consumer Protection Requirements can't be enforced, it will not be for want of trying. Several bodies are being brought into existence to enforce them. Each new commercial company bidding for space on Channels 3, 5 and perhaps 6 will have to agree to abide these requirements. Their Boards will be obliged to check the programme- makers; and they are in turn monitored by the new Independent Television Commission (ITC, replacing the IBA) which will be able to issue a yellow card warning, followed, if necessary, by a red card withdrawal of licence, should the requirements be breached. In addition, there is the new Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC), which may or may not include the existing Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC); and the BSC will be given 'statutory powers'. The BBC has its Board of Governors, whose role is to see that the BBC management operates in the public interest, as its Charter dictates; and all broadcasting will now be included with the Obscene Publications Act, 1959. There are, in short, five, possibly six, levels of monitoring. excluding whatever codes may be adopted within Europe.

Hurd's writ in this matter will extend to the skies. 'Steps will be taken to ensure that the programme content' (of satellite services) 'is supervised. But how? Hurd proposes three methods. All services 'uplinked from Europe will be subject to the proposed Council of Europe Convention on Transfrontier Broadcasting, while those uplinked from Britain will have to conform to the standards of the national terrestrial services. If satellite services uplinked from non-European countries offend against Hurd's standards, the British government will firstly complain to the appropriate governments and, if that fails, penalise the advertisers.

That simply won't work. Among the Consumer Protection Requirements is one insisting that news should be 'impartial and accurate and another which states that 'programmes should omit all expressions of the views and opinions of the persons providing the service on religious matters or on matters which are of political or industrial controversy or relate to current public policy'. What would happen if a Christian evangelical channel were uplinked from the United States and beamed down on Britain? How could the British government persuade the US government that a service which is legal in the States should be banned from transmitting on the grounds that it is illegal in Britain? If it could not do so, then we would be left with the curious anomaly that Billy Graham and Pat Robertson could provide Christian satellite services to Britain, whereas the Archbishop of Canterbury could not.

And the consequences, of course, do not end there. We could have Moslem channels from North Africa, and even Moony channels. If the Libyan government chose to uplink satellite services to Britain (and why shouldn't it?), could Sir Geoffrey Howe persuade them to observe our ideas of 'impartiality', including not interviewing terrorists? It is not cynical to suggest, as Lord Bonham-Carter has done in the House of Lords, that Mrs. Thatcher wants as many channels as the market can bear, provided that they all roughly conform to her point of view. The blind arrogance of this government is shown by the fact that it believes that it can persuade other countries to follow suit; and if it cannot do so. it will risk greatly inhibiting British standards of broadcasting freedom at a time when there is no effective framework to control supra-national television by satellite. In that way. British television will be damaged and Britain will lose an important international voice.

There are, however, ways around the problems of international regulation (and indeed other matters concerning the new age of television) which have not been explored for ideological reasons by this government or its main opposition parties, the BBC and the IBA. These can be conveniently summarised under three headings, political, technological, and philosophical.

The political aim of the government should be to secure effective international agreements regulating satellite television, even if they can only be achieved at a very basic level. Regional agreements through the Council of Europe's convention are of only temporary usefulness, since they will not bind the United States or other less friendly non-European countries. The obvious body through which such agreements could be reached is UNESCO: and matters like this are why UNESCO was brought into existence.

The United States and Britain left UNESCO in a huff. following outrageous treatment from the previous Secretary-General: but the regime has now changed to one which is more friendly to the West. UNESCO very much wants Britain and the United States back in the fold and it has a substantial interest in 'Culture and Communications". Under these circumstances, it might be tricky but by no means impossible to reach an international agreement which would (a) outlaw television piracy and other gross breaches of copyright. (b) control programmes which seek to inflame racial and religious hatreds. (c) provide minimal technological guidelines to prevent interference between competing channels and (d) establish a tribunal or court. to which governments could have recourse, if they felt that broadcasts from other countries were fomenting unrest or otherwise de-stabilising their states. It might even be possible to outlaw the televising of certain gross acts of indecency, although these would be much more difficult to define. Public executions or floggings might come under that heading.

These measures fall a long way short of Mr. Hurd's Consumer Protection Requirements, but they have the merit of being practical international politics: and my impression was from a meeting in UNESCO last March that they would be welcomed by most of the member countries. But UNESCO needs the support of the West to bring them into being.

The White Paper is as politically inept at handling the new technology as it is with the regulation of satellite television. One theme throughout is that the government expects the market to decide which technologies thrive and which do not; and that there is (as it says of satellite television) 'no question of betting with public money on any of the opportunities now opening up. It expects. for example. 'industry increasingly to fit suitable connectors as standard equipment without the need of compulsion'. It is keen to facilitate the development of broadband cable, ‘at a pace determined by the market', although it observes that 'one reason for this slow growth' (of broadband cable) 'has been hesitation on the part of potential investors faced by the high capital cost of installing a cable system and the absence of any significant revenue in the early years'. This point has been picked up by the BBC and the IBA as proof that there is no public demand for a proliferation of channels or for 'pay as you’ view or subscription services.

Investors, meanwhile, are waiting for a firm lead from the government as to what kind of telecommunications system it envisages for Britain before investing. It is high risk indeed to invest in broadband cable at a time when industry is still deciding what 'suitable connectors should be fitted as standard equipment'. In the early 1980s. British Telecom was encouraged to develop an optical fibre cable system for Britain, which involved a greater outlay than coaxial cable but which offered in the long run much more capacity and flexibility; but it has not received the government backing it expected and therefore its plans are in jeopardy.

The White Paper assumes that all methods of delivering television services are equally desirable, provided that they are subject to market forces. But the technologies are not comparable and they cater for different markets. Satellite television is tempting for advertising and certain kinds of subscription channels, as well as for propaganda. It is essentially mass-market television, offering comparatively little scope for the individual viewer to determine what he or she wants to see. Broadband cable, and particularly optical fibre, holds out the prospect of pay-as-you-view television, in which the consumer can decide what to see and when to see it; and is excellent for the transmission of information services, ranging from open university programmes to banking, legal and health facilities.

If we define the market in a limited sense to mean that which is likely to bring in the medium term a favourable return for investors, then satellite television is the more attractive option. If on the other hand we mean something like the social market economy, in which we assume that it is in the interests of the nation as a whole that the public should be well-educated and well-informed, that industries large and small should have access to data banks and that the viewer really should be placed, as the government says, 'at the centre of broadcasting policy', then broadband cable is the only answer. What the government cannot do is to pretend that the infrastructure for cable can be financed initially in the same way as satellite television; or that a coherent telecommunications system for Britain will emerge as a result of market forces alone. The limited market will prefer satellite television; and having invested in satellites, will have a vested interest in delaying the introduction of cable.

To prevent much wastage of money, interminable delays and ultimate chaos, the government needs to decide on a policy of common carriers, which for ideological reasons it is determined not to do. Having been over-punctilious about Consumer Protection Requirements, it is scrupulously vague about what kind of telecommunications system it eventually wants to see in Britain. Far from providing the right enabling framework', its uncertainties are a deterrent to investment; and it compounds these difficulties by treating terrestrial commercial television companies as milch cows.

In other areas of industry, the need for future heavy investment is taken as a justification for high paper profits. The television industry as a whole will have to invest heavily if it is to sustain the different demands of satellite and cable; but the government doesn't want to see the industry as a whole, only as individual companies bidding for franchises. whose profits can then be subjected to what amounts to a progressive Entertainments Tax. Having proposed that the market should decide the future shape of British television. Mr. Hurd then worries about whether he has been too generous to the investors. It is a curious trust in market forces which fears excessive profits.

The White Paper lacks confidence in its own philosophy. It has no philosophy, which is its central weakness. Nor does it have the common sense which can sometimes substitute for a philosophy. Consider, for example, the floated proposal to finance the BBC through subscription. If public service broadcasting means anything at all. it means providing a service to the public, and not just to those sections of the public who can afford to pay.

In the past, when the BBC had a monopoly or shared a duopoly of a scarce resource, television air waves, it was entitled to interpret the public service principle very broadly, to mean 'high quality programming across the full range of public tastes and interests'. On the day on which I am writing, out of the 30 hours' programming on BBC1 and BBC2, no less than 8 hours are devoted to sport, 5 to light entertainment. 6 to films, 3 to children's programmes, 50 minutes to News and the Weather. You must look hard to find the quality of content about which John Mortimer so eloquently slurped.

Of course, the BBC has better days and worse ones, but it puts out very few programmes of a kind that could not be seen on American commercial television in a major city, which would also provide ethnic channels, day-long news channels, acres of soap, a much wider variety of films and full sports events, not just selected highlights. The belief that British television is much superior these days to the American variety is a chauvinist myth, although it may once have been true.

The case of public service television today is not that it should offer all things to all men, but that it should provide those services which are deemed to be in the interests of the public at large, but are unlikely to be financed by ordinary commercial means. It should be the BBC which televises Parliament, which sponsors the Open University programmes, which runs public information films and documentaries, which screens plays and operas from our major subsidised companies and which sponsors informed debates about major public issues. It is not the job of public service broadcasting to prove that Terry Wogan is as good as Johnny Carson.

The proliferation of channels actually strengthens the case for public service broadcasting. Mr. Hurd's unenforceable Consumer Protection Requirements may be absurd; but they reflect a real problem. Amid the welter of new voices and ideas, among competing claims from different commercial sources, it is very desirable to have certain channels which are outside the battle. representing the interests of the general public. Of course, the BBC can never be absolutely impartial and fair-minded; nor will it ever be able to represent public interest in its entirety. But by keeping a part of the broadcasting spectrum free from the normal kinds of commercial and political pressures, the hope of a more dispassionate analysis of human events is kept alive.

At the least, public service broadcasting could provide something like the Consumers' Magazine, Which, writ large; but at best, it could be an influence for reason which spreads throughout the system. It could be through the persuasive force of a high-minded public service broadcasting channel that the abuses elsewhere in television can best be held in check. You are never going to be able to ban programme material that is 'offensive to public feeling': but through an enlightened public service channel, important questions of taste, decency and truthfulness can be under continual public discussion. This approach would substitute reason for legislative force.

If we believe in this principle of public service broadcasting, then the service has to be made freely available to the public at large. If, for example, we feel that it is in the public interest that the facts about AIDS should be known, then it is against the public interest to erect the barrier of an additional payment. The trouble with all subscription schemes for public service broadcasting is that it deters those whom we most should wish to reach, the ignorant, the poor and the lazy.

Many Tories, of course, would condemn this as social do-gooding. They cannot conceive of a public good which exists above and beyond the market economy, and cannot be expressed through it. They can, however, imagine public harm, which is why they are quick to censor but slow to encourage the development of moral perceptions. Their view of morality is negative: it is what people should be stopped from doing. This is why, in the last analysis, the White Paper is to be condemned on philosophical and ethical grounds, rather than for all its other shortcomings.

Technology has placed into our hands a major new resource. It has been likened in the past to the developments in printing in the nineteenth century which made possible cheap books and popular newspapers. This analogy, in fact, is far too cautious. It is more akin to the discovery of printing itself in the fourteenth century. Printing superseded the copying of manuscripts by hand: the developments in telecommunications will eventually supersede printing.

For the first time, it is possible for each home to have access to libraries of information, for searches to be conducted through data banks at lightning speed, for the wealth of human knowledge and visual imagery to be made available to private individuals, for a great diversity of ideas and insights to be exchanged and for many of the physical (as well as ideological) limitations which separate country from country to be overcome. It can and will extend our human capacity to think, reason and comprehend.

Unfortunately for Britain, the revolution has reached us at a time when our ability to rise to this kind of challenge is at a low ebb. Thatcherism has some strengths, but it cannot distinguish between the value of a book and the price on its label. It interprets freedom to mean a light regulatory touch' for commerce and industry. It does not mean freedom of expression, the freedom to investigate and the freedom to exchange ideas. It is fascinated by the technology involved, which is described well throughout the White Paper, but not by the uses to which it can be put. Sceptical observers will immediately notice how well the concerns of the Home Office (the law-and-order ministry) and the Department of Trade and Industry are balanced. Neither ministry has an interest in protecting or encouraging the programme makers, except in as much as more channels and more independent producers cut down the influence of the BBC.

In former years, the British Liberal Party would have been the natural opponent of the Tory Party on this matter, through principle and tradition. Supporters of Gladstone fought against the Stamp Tax, the 'tax upon knowledge', which was intended to curb the power of the popular press. Freedom of conscience and freedom of expression have been principles which have defined the very word, liberal, not just in Britain but throughout the world. Their successors, however, the LibDems, seem to have turned their backs on this honourable heritage, at the very time when it was most necessary to stand firm.

'Some of the fizz seems to be going out of the attack', Douglas Hurd blandly replied in the House of Commons to the Democrats' spokesman, Robert McLennan, who was worried that the multiplicity of channels might lead to a deterioration in quality: an old, tired argument. In this, if in nothing else. Hurd was right.

The Labour Party and the Democrats have so far taken it upon themselves to defend the status quo, conservative by nature if not by name. But Hurd's White Paper, despite years of gestation, is still only a White Paper. The Bill is yet to come. It is not too late even now to rally the opposition.