Radio Microphones

House of Commons

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on an important subject, and to the Minister for Industry and the Regions for coming to the Chamber to reply. I know that there is a limit to what she can say because of the nature and timing of the Ofcom consultation, so we have agreed it will not cause a problem if I stray over the usual 15-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.

My purpose is to alert Parliament, all users of radio mikes and the general public to a real and present danger—I believe that Ofcom is now aware of it—caused by Ofcom’s proposal to auction the spectrum, which has been freed up by the move from analogue to digital terrestrial television. Until recently, that was regarded as an exclusively good thing, enabling a whole range of new uses for one of the most valuable commodities of the modern world—the radio magnetic spectrum. It has become apparent, however, that there is a potential casualty—the radio or wireless microphone. It may not sound serious at first blush, but closer examination shows that it could be a significant problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, shares my concerns. Given my chairmanship of the Trade and Industry Committee, that means that the Chairmen of both Committees to which Ofcom is accountable in the House are worried about the issue.

For the technically minded, when I use the phrase, “radio mike”, I may be referring to a range of crucial wireless gadgets such as wireless in-ear monitor systems, wireless talkback systems and wireless instrument systems. There is even a Downing street petition on the subject with about 6,000 signatures, including that of Gillian Lynne, who is perhaps the most distinguished choreographer in the world and the genius behind “Cats” and many other theatrical triumphs. I hope that the petition will attract many more signatures, although they may not reach road pricing levels. Ofcom is highly regarded, and rightly so, but it is only beginning to understand how serious the issue is and how incomplete its initial understanding of it was. That is not intended as a criticism, as it is a highly technical subject involving a plethora of firms, organisations and individuals. Indeed, despite having immersed myself in it for several days, I am apprehensive lest I make a serious gaffe in my brief remarks.

I could have entitled the debate, “The implications of Ofcom’s actions and the threat to the use of interleaved spectrum by the programme-making and special events sector”, but I would lose my audience very quickly. That may be why the issue has taken so long to gain traction. Unless—and I think that it may be the case—there is substantial change to Ofcom’s proposals, we run the serious risk that some very bad things will happen. I must declare an interest: I am a passionate fan of musical theatre, and I am delighted that my son is studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art on a stage management and technical theatre course. His account of the gloom among his professional tutors is one reason why I wished to speak on the subject.

The loss of spectrum for radio microphones would mean many things, including an end to west end musicals. The use of radio mikes to achieve the necessary volume and co-ordinate the stage crew is essential, so it would be goodbye to “Phantom of the Opera”, “The Lion King”, “Evita”, “Spamalot”, “Porgy and Bess” and the rest, as they would have to close. Gillian Lynne told me:

“‘Cats’, one of the most innovative shows ever staged, could never have worked without radio mics. No one could dance at that technical virtuosity and pace and sing flat out, as the performers have to, without radio mics. That show has boosted English expertise and creativity world wide and made a great deal of money for this country.”

Some opera companies use radio mikes too, and touring productions like Raymond Gubbay’s operas in the round just would not happen. Tours by stars of the music world, whether that is Elton John doing his back catalogue at England’s cricket grounds, Kylie Minogue strutting her stuff, George Michael’s stylish pop, or Arctic Monkeys’ raucous rock, would all end.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is arguing against himself, now!

Peter Luff: There are some arguments on the other side. I shall come to that later.

There would be an end to all UK film making, including most television drama—they all use radio mikes now, not the old boom mikes. Think of “The West Wing”, with its long continuous shots in corridors and offices. That is what audiences expect, and radio mikes are needed to do it. Lord Puttnam—David Puttnam—told me:

“In the past decade the film and television industry has moved to a point at which virtually all sound recording is now down to using wireless technology.”

So no radio mikes means that no more British triumphs, like “The Queen”, will be made in Britain and, by the way, no Bollywood extravaganzas will be filmed at British locations, either.

TV news gathering would also grind to a halt. All outside broadcasts now depend on radio mikes and spectrum for the cameras to transmit footage back to the outside broadcast van. One cannot have trailing cables at scenes of terrorist outrages like 7/7, and one cannot have single-handed film crews interviewing people, including MPs, if they have to hold a furry mike in front of the interviewee as well as operate the camera. ITV told me:

“Access to these channels has been essential to ITV’s effective operation and news coverage; they are used to service talkback and radio microphones, on location and in studios. To date, the Joint Frequency Management Group has effectively managed allocation of spectrum to broadcasters, ensuring efficient and effective use of radio spectrum to serve broadcast needs.

Any potential loss of the ability to operate radio microphones will compromise the quality of the news service they can provide nationally and locally.

Over the years, ITV has made a significant investment in these systems, and the future viability of this investment will be in doubt.”

Outside sports broadcasts, from Formula 1 to the rugby World cup, depend on radio mikes for the reporters and camera crews to cover the event, and even to let us hear the referee’s comments to players. One of the best inventions in TV coverage of cricket, the snickometer, would also be endangered. As for the possible effect on the 2012 Olympics, the BBC told me:

“It is difficult to see how the UK can meet the commitments it set out in its bid regarding access to spectrum.”

Major special events would suffer in particular, as they make huge use of the spectrum, so no more “Children in Need”, no more televised 80th birthday parties for Her Majesty, no more Brit awards, no more VE-day celebrations, no more Band Aid or Live8. Finally, perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) may never have become Leader of the official Opposition without a radio mike. He needed one to walk confidently around the stage at Blackpool in October 2005, delivering to that imposing hall and a wider television audience his barnstorming and inspiring speech.

One of our greatest screen and stage actors, Patrick Stewart, of “Star Trek” and “X-Men” fame, said to me, also making the point that even if the actors do not need mikes, the backstage crew do:

“Modern entertainment depends on the use of wireless equipment to communicate. I am currently in ‘The Tempest’ in the West End and the stage management rely on radio technology to do their work. The same is true for film making and other forms of entertainment.

If access to the spectrum became unaffordable or unavailable, the British entertainment industry would be severely handicapped and perhaps even grind to a halt. It would be disastrous.”

There is, however, one silver lining—no radio mikes would mean an end to reality television, and programmes like “Big Brother” would no longer grace our screens!

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