Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Mr Colin Shaw


  I write as the former Chief Secretary to the BBC, Director of Television at the IBA, and founder-Director of the Broadcasting Standards Council from 1988 to 1996. I have two particular concerns in submitting this memorandum: first, to comment on the composition of the OFCOM board and, secondly, to suggest changes in the arrangements proposed for the future handling of complaints about the content of broadcast programmes.


  2.1  In Chapter 8 of the White Paper, it is proposed that the board of the new regulator shall be a small body consisting of a Chairman, a Chief Executive and an unspecified number of executive and non-executive directors. It may, however, be assumed that, in addition to the Chief Executive, there will need to be places for possibly three executive directors (for example: Finance, Engineering, Legal, with Content and the Consumer as other claimants.) Even taking a low figure, five of the seats on the proposed "small" board are already committed before the non-executive directors are added. The White Paper lays stress on consensus as the basis for OFCOM's decisions, notably where there are conflicts between its content-related objectives and its other objectives. The board's responsibilities to the concerns and sensitivities of a wide range of interests are set out in Section 8.6 of the summary on page 94.

  2.2  There is a potential conflict between the objective of having a small board at the head of OFCOM and the recognition elsewhere in the White Paper that content-issues, often being matters for subjective judgements, do not readily lend themselves to quantifiable solutions. It is in this area of the new regulator's work that the role of the non-executive directors will be crucial. It is difficult to see how there can be adequate representation of many important interests when discussions about content are taking place if, at worst, the non-executive directors are outnumbered by their executive colleagues or, only slightly better, are too few in number to take into account the range of interests they are excepted to do. What, for example, of the nations within the United Kingdom, or of the more populous English regions? What about the interests of education or of ethnic minorities?

  2.3  It is true that OFCOM will not have the responsibilities of a publisher of the material broadcast by its licensees. Most of its thinking will be about the strategy to be followed by its programme services rather than the consequences of individual editorial decisions by licensees. Nevertheless, the need for a broad sweep of opinion to be taken into account before decisions are made cannot be satisfied solely on the basis of even the most intensive research. Perhaps eight non-executive directors might be an effective force. In the welter of commercial matters which will be on the agenda of OFCOM from the start, discussions of content will not always find it easy to secure an adequate place unless supported by a convincing number of members. The White Paper's protestations of a concern for quality programming will be in vain without that measure of support.


  3.1  The White Paper proposes that complaints about content should be considered first by the broadcaster responsible for the programme complained of. Only if the complainant is dissatisfied is there a right of approach to OFCOM. How OFCOM will deal with these appeals is not spelt out. In contrast, the right to complain about failures in service delivery is protected by the creation of an independent Consumer Panel with considerable powers and apparently its own secretariat.

  3.2  When the Broadcasting Standards Council was being established at the beginning of the 1990's, a similar proposal was made in respect of complaints about content: recourse first to the broadcaster and only thereafter to the Council. It was pointed out that this was necessarily a slow process as the broadcaster was often genuinely unable to master a reply from production-teams dispersed perhaps weeks before transmission. The delay robbed complainants of a real sense that someone was active on his behalf since it appeared to many of them inevitable that the broadcasters would want to defend their own programmes. It was, therefore, decided that complainants should have the right of immediate access to the Council.

  3.3  The Council, and now the Commission which succeeded it, provided for scrutiny by its lay members of the complaints and of the broadcasters' response which too often bore the influence of broadcasting professionals and took too little account of the feelings of the audience. The route for complaints now proposed in the White Paper would simply resurrect this grievance.

  3.4  At a public meeting in the House of Commons on 1 February 2001, the Secretary of State (DCMS) indicated a willingness to consider the possibility of widening the remit of the Consumer Panel to take in complaints about content. If this were followed up, it would restore the element of lay scrutiny which is important to maintain the public's belief that their complaints are being treated equitably.

  3.5  Even if such a widening of the remit were not to take place, some of the disadvantages flowing from the arrangements proposed in the White Paper would be reduced if OFCOM were obliged to incorporate a lay element into whatever final form its content-complaints machinery took.

February 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 15 March 2001