Kenneth Warren – 1978 Speech on Ceefax and Oracle

Below is the text of the speech made by Kenneth Warren, the then Conservative MP for Hastings, in the House of Commons on 4 April 1978.

Tonight I should like to raise the subject of Government support for the Viewdata and Teletext projects. These are means of transmitting information by both television and telephone to the public, industry and the community. They are brilliant British inventions. I think that they rank with the inventions of the jet ​ engine and radar in this country and that they are superb examples of British technical genius in action. Of particular importance is that they are two years in advance of any foreign rival. They are now on test and are not only proving that they work but that with good will they will meet the great expectations of the engineers who have developed them.

I have nothing but praise for the way in which a dozen British companies, including the Post Office, have worked together in harmony but quietly in developing these new communications systems. More is the pity that in the quietness of the House we shall be told a story of British achievement, bearing in mind that the House is so often filled to hear the story of a British industrial disaster. Perhaps it is a reflection on all of us that we have become too used to failure and are not used to success when we see it.

Our need tonight is to talk of the way in which we can bring this project, which is on the threshold of success, to the reality which I am sure both sides of the House want to see.

I particularly praise the inventor of the system, Mr. Sam Fedida, who was once in the Post Office, and also the entrepreneurial style of Sir William Barlow and Dr. Alex Reid, who in the Post Office have shown a vigour, enthusiasm and entreprenuerial style which has been too long invisible in the Post Office. Praise also goes to those who worked on CEEFAX and ORACLE in the IBA and the BBC, who in parallel are leading the world—and my superlatives are carefully gauged—in this “first” in information technology. As a technologist myself, from what I have seen to date I believe that we have here a brilliant system, which will be a winner.

The problem to which I wish to address myself tonight is the role that should now be played by the Government to ensure that the systems developed to date achieve the success that they deserve. For too long this country has failed to harvest the fruits of its own technology. For too long we have suffered industrial policies which have subsidised failure rather than stimulated success.

The beauties of Viewdata and Teletext are that they are simple and will help ​ all the people of this country, and I hope, the world to gain a new freedom of access to information, not only across their own nations but across the frontiers of the world. They can be signal contributions to understanding between peoples.

The clever parts of Viewdata and Teletext are translations of the concepts that started off as thoughts, drawings and views in the minds of people which now have been translated into systems that are proving that they are real and reliable. They are—I hope that the Government will recognise this—the first recognition in this country that a world information revolution is upon us. They are both systems which are built by venture capital from private industry and from the Post Office. Ranges of work have been done by companies such as Mullard, GEC, ITT, Rank, Decca—a dozen companies which make up the forefront of British communications technology.

I have no doubt that the Minister will dispute my view, but I must say that I am delighted that the heavy hand of Whitehall has not been on the motive power of the project. On the other hand, I will be the first to say that if any Government are needed in an industrial project their presence in specific areas where help is required needs to be timely and of sufficient strength to complete the job properly.

I should like to propose certain ways in which the Government could and should now help. The first is to endorse the systems as viable ways in which information can be conveyed between people. This may sound an unusual proposal to put before a House or to a Government—that all they have to do is to shout “Hurrah”—but this is such a wonderful invention that an endorsement by a British Government would be tremendous, timely and completely fair and reasonable.

Secondly, I believe that the Government should give leadership in establishing that the viable and reasonable international standards for all these systems can be achieved.

Thirdly, I ask that the Government should recognise that these systems are means of improving the process of government at all levels of government in the United Kingdom, whether it be at ​ national, county or district level, or within the national corporations of the State.

To enlarge briefly on each of these proposals, taking endorsement first, a public expression by the Government of good will towards the project would not only be a spur to those who have quietly given so much of their time and their effort but also would be a tremendous help, I understand, to export sales projects. Before I came to the House, I knew what it was like to try to sell electronic goods in a very competitive market in the United States and the difference it makes or does not make to have the support of a British Government. I did not have it and it was like going up the north wall of the Eiger. Why not give these people the chance of a smoother ride round the softer side?

I understand that the Post Office export division is all ready to go. I think that it should be assisted.

We must also, I hope, look to the Government to ensure that any necessary legislation—this needs to be examined—is on line on time.

On the question of leadership, to put it bluntly the French came in two years after we had started, and now, as is too often the case with our French allies, they are unwisely, from a technical viewpoint—I do not think it is my place in the House tonight to give way any technical secrets to which I might have become privy—trying to force through international specifications in favour of their equipment without the authority of technical backing which they should have.

The Government could give leadership and I believe should give leadership in the relevant international authorities such as the Conference of European Posts and Telecommunications to make our systems and their systems acceptable rather than to find a situation where the French are trying to make our system unacceptable and theirs acceptable. We must speak through the Government with one authority for telecommunications and broadcasting at the debating tables where these international standards are agreed.

Thirdly, I think that the Government should explore immediately, in collaboration perhaps with the central computer authority of the Civil Service Department which I recognise is another Department ​ from that of the Minister who is kindly replying to the debate tonight, the use of this breakthrough in information processes to improve the process of government.

I have absolutely no doubt that the Viewdata and Teletext could bring to the Department of the Environment, the Home Office, the Department of Trade, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Minister’s own Department, new ways in which information could be gathered and exchanged.

I hope that it would help the market surveys of the Department’s own requirement boards, which, I was told in a parliamentary reply, are unable to carry out their own surveys through a lack of expertise. I hope it would help the Foreign Office in the United Nations debate on direct satellite broadcasting, because these systems provide a means of supporting the British contention that we can supply world-wide freedom of access to information across frontiers.

However, the Luddites are at work, and it is not unusual with new technologies to find people speaking sourly of something that looks like progress. I understand that the National Union of Journalists is already in dispute over one of the systems about who should get the jobs involved. But this is a new project which offers more than enough jobs for everyone, and everyone should welcome the chance of many more jobs. I hope that all the unions will look upon this development as an opportunity for new employment.

I understand that the Advertising Standards Association feels that someone should censor what is available. The deputy director of that authority believes that Viewdata could become “a haven for all sorts of crooks and misleading advertisers who could not find a home in the existing media”.

That Luddite attitude must be dismissed rapidly, so that it does not present an obstacle to what should be a great British venture. To achieve that I should be happy to give Mrs. Whitehouse the chance of acting as a temporary censor.

In this century we have seen two great revolutions in communications. The first was that of the Wright brothers, who opened the door to Concorde, by which ​ the world can be spanned in a day. The second has been the revolution in communications by which we have literally moved from smoke signals to Viewdata and Teletext. We have changed communications so that instead of people having to travel to find facts they simply use television and the telephone. It would not be going too far to say that here for the first time in 20 or 25 years since the world first saw the computer we can look to a new world of communications which is dawning before us.

The systems are a world of enterprise for industry. New jobs will replace old and more jobs will be waiting. We are only one year away from the systems being available in the High Streets of Britain, yet their names have never before been mentioned in Parliament. We now need a combined effort by industry and Government to reach out for the international success that these systems truly deserve, and I look forward to the Government tonight meeting me in that request.