Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 134)

WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002

MR DONALD EMSLIE, MR SANDY ROSS, MR DERRICK THOMSON AND MR NEIL ROBINSON

Mr Lyons

  120. Alongside the question of the panel itself, is there any way yourselves or the BBC can identify a greater interest in current affairs and news programmes post devolution? Are any figures available at all on that? Are there any figures to indicate a greater interest?
  (Mr Ross) Yes. It depends on the programme. For example on the day that Henry McLeish resigned, to use that as an example, we brought forward the late Thursday night edition of Crossfire to seven thirty in the evening and even up against EastEnders on a Thursday night, that got a very, very big audience. Another example was on the day that Cardinal Winning died. We transmitted a special programme which we made during the course of that day and transmitted it at six o'clock that night. That got an audience in excess of half a million viewers which surprised us. The answer to your question really comes back to the issues and if certain things are happening which viewers are interested in, then they will watch the programmes. One of the biggest disappointments for us recently for example was that we made two special one-hour documentaries, one which we transmitted on the first anniversary of Donald Dewar's death which was an objective assessment of his career and that, to us, got a disappointing audience. We promoted that and trailed it very hard on Scottish and Grampian. We also made a similar programme when Alex Salmond retired as leader of the SNP to mark his ten years. Some of you may be smiling because you probably think that would not get a big audience, but we promoted that fairly heavily and we got disappointing figures. Both of these programmes were serious investments on our part and were both very well made documentaries. You can take a horse to water.

  121. You say it is related more to the issue itself and the audience response to that rather than an overall figure which shows an increased audience for news and current affairs.
  (Mr Emslie) When I said we employed companies like System 3, within their brief what they will do is interview in home 1,000 in the Scottish region and 1,000 in the Grampian region so that it is statistically and geographically representative and monitor what they think of our output. It will not surprise you to know that it comes back saying they want more High Roads, they want more local programming in certain aspects, certain regions of the country will want more Gaelic or less Gaelic depending on where they are and they get annoyed about us moving Coronation Street. It is difficult to give you a direct answer in terms of what the viewers think when we put on programmes and there is a response and we get comments back either through a website or a viewers' inquiry desk and we are out in the regions with between us some 100 journalists on a day-to-day basis which gives us quite a lot of feedback.
  (Mr Thomson) One of the direct spin-offs from the news and current affairs programmes is that both Scottish and Grampian now do North Tonight specials and Scotland Today specials which directly attack the issues which are on the table. Certainly we know from the figures which have been coming out of those two programmes—and they are peak slots—that there is an appetite for those local issues raised to that level.

Chairman

  122. I must say I get quite annoyed as well when you move Coronation Street.
  (Mr Emslie) It is only moved on a Wednesday night to accommodate live football.

  123. That is what annoys me.
  (Mr Emslie) I have to say that it is the biggest source of comments from our viewers to our viewers' inquiry desk.

  124. I am sure it is. BBC told us last week that after ten or ten thirty in the evening figures plummet anyway. Programmes like Platform and Crossfire are on very late in the evening. What kind of viewing figures would you get for these programmes?
  (Mr Ross) It depends on the issues. The average figure tends to be around 100,000 viewers watching a programme like Platform or Crossfire. There could be certain weeks, dependent on the issue, where that figure could go up almost to 140,000. One of the things we are looking to do as part of our ongoing discussions with ITV and the ITC about the place of original programming in the future is to bring programmes like Platform, Crossfire, slightly earlier in the schedule. Hopefully if we can move them to a better time like 10.30 then that would help increase our viewing figures for these programmes.

Ann McKechin

  125. You have all stated that you have increased your companies' staff in Edinburgh as a result of devolution. I think that is true of all the media in Scotland. Is there any sense that the working arrangements of the Scottish Parliament and the number of journalists located there, which I understand can be up to 70 at any one time, have created an overlarge media microscope which in the pursuit of a story might tend to magnify devolved issues at the expense of the broader picture?
  (Mr Emslie) You raise a very valid issue. Scotland now has some 19 newspapers circulating. We have all the indigenous Scottish newspapers and all the Scottish editions of the English newspapers and they all have correspondents in the Parliament. The radio companies cover it. In terms of SMG all of us share facilities at the Scottish Parliament with ITN and in terms of the Parliament itself, the people we have put in there are representative. However, you raise a point which is probably more directed at the newspapers and at times a bit of a frenzy develops in terms of public issues.

  126. May I take that point about newspapers a bit further? Your own company represents a growing trend of multimedia companies with interests in the press, radio, TV, cinema, etcetera and that is also becoming a feature of multi-nationalism with things like Murdoch and AOL. Do you think that this growing trend of multimedia, which includes the press, which is not regulated in the same way as broadcast news and radio, is having an effect on the political balance and control of stories and the fact that you have journalists feeding off other journalists? We have an increasing tendency in broadcasting to have journalists interviewing other journalists; we see this as a regular feature. It is the same people interviewing their pals. Do you not see an implicit danger of conflicts emerging?
  (Mr Emslie) If all we had was journalists interviewing journalists, then I would agree, but I do not think that is what we have. In terms of our organisation, we absolutely believe in editorial independence and the editor of The Herald has the control over what is contained within his newspaper, as does the Evening Times, as does the Sunday Herald. Derrick and his Head of News and Sandy and his Head of News have editorial control over our output. We are not taking all our editorial staff together and considering what to report today because we are all outwith our own news organisations, our own journalists, our own reporters covering what we think our viewers should watch and be informed about and The Herald journalists are doing exactly the same. As a cross-media group there is no danger of us coming together to interfere with editorial independence. Yes, political commentators are now seen very regularly, whether it be News Night or ITN or whatever, commenting on the affairs. In television we have an obligation to be impartial. We have to balance the agenda, so if all we did was interview journalists, that would not be seen as being impartial. We have to interview right the way across the political spectrum.

  127. Obviously SMG is a Scottish based company and I fully appreciate the comments you have made about your own editorial standards. Given the fact of growing multi-nationalism and the fact of these very huge corporate companies such as AOL or Rupert Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's company was alleged at one stage to have told its staff not to talk adversely about China because they were trying to get contracts in Asia. Obviously that is a large example, but if there were a takeover of SMG at some stage down the line, which is not something which could be predictable in the current global climate, do you not think there is an increasing trend where there are fewer and fewer people owning the press and media altogether and that the difficulty of trying to enforce editorial control will become all that much more difficult?
  (Mr Emslie) The issue is different for broadcasting. Newspapers, as you rightly point out, do not face the same constraints on their editorial policy. They are free to run with an agenda, run with a policy and that has always been the case and I suspect that will not change. Within the broadcasting part of the Communications Bill, we are very keen to make sure that our regional licences are protected and I am sure that written into the Bill will be this aspect of impartiality and that we have to be fair to everybody. That will continue and it will continue on radio and on television.

  128. So regulation is the key.
  (Mr Emslie) I think regulation will protect you. To be fair, certainly in our experience, there have been very few occasions when our own self-governing on our impartiality and our ability to cover the agenda have ever been questioned.

Mr Robertson

  129. The OFCOM second reading went through the other week. How do you think the new OFCOM regulator will affect media companies?
  (Mr Emslie) We welcome the inclusion of a regulator who covers the converging aspects of the media and we think it is a step forward in terms of one regulator being able to take in the ITC, Broadcasting Standards Council, the Radio Authority, the Radio Communications Agency and we welcome that. Our position is that there should continue to be, certainly in the Scottish context, officers and personnel within OFCOM so that we have access to OFCOM through regional offices and up onto the main boards and committees. Our principal concern with OFCOM is that it does not include the BBC in all its remit. BBC is regulated within tiers one and two in OFCOM but not within tier three which is effectively the backstop powers which will remain with the Secretary of State. In our submission to the Communication White Paper, what we have said is that in order to regulate the whole communications industry, you should include the BBC within the regulation of OFCOM in order to regulate the whole market. BBC represents half the radio market and an increasing percentage of the television market with its launch of several digital channels. We think that should be within OFCOM.

  130. You will be very surprised to learn the BBC did not agree with you.
  (Mr Emslie) I am sure they did not.

  131. While I was sympathetic to what you are saying, I was also very sympathetic to the BBC. If we want to bring the BBC under the OFCOM umbrella, should we introduce the same guidelines from government to the BBC that we do to yourselves?
  (Mr Emslie) Effectively that is being discussed at the moment. We would say that within the terms of our licence we are actually currently more heavily regulated than the BBC. The BBC have a charter and a broad remit in terms of the range and diversity whereas ITV are mandated specifically in programme genres to deliver minimum levels of programming by genre both at a network level and at a regional level and the ITC have the power to step in and impose licence sanctions if we do not live up to these remits. That current situation does not exist within the BBC. We would certainly welcome a move to more self-regulation which is where the BBC currently is, where the governors oversee the BBC's output and their promises. We are moving slightly towards that at the moment within the ITC where instead of having nine different genres of programming they have now gone down to news, current affairs and other. We have some flexibility within the total level but we are moving forward to making statements of range and diversity which would not specifically tie us in to specific quotas. We would be making public promises about what we hope and our ambitions for the service within this statement of range and diversity. If we do not live up to that and live up to the remit then OFCOM could stand in and impose sanctions. We are moving towards levels of regulation similar to those currently enjoyed by the BBC. The one difference is that OFCOM will not have the backstop powers over the BBC.

  132. Would you then make the kind of programmes the BBC make at the moment which you do not make?
  (Mr Emslie) It depends whether you are talking about ITV or us as a regional broadcaster. We and BBC Scotland actually make quite similar programmes for the vast majority of our regional output. It is news, sport, current affairs and religion. We will continue to make that. ITV is slightly different from the BBC in its network programmes in that it is a commercial broadcaster. It has to produce a mass audience and it has to be popular. Typical ITV programmes like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Coronation Street, Trevor McDonald's Tonight programme, in-depth one-hour documentaries will all still be there. What ITV might not do is programmes like the Blue Planet or Walking With Dinosaurs which the BBC is very well equipped to produce and that is exactly the type of programme they should be making.

Mr Joyce

  133. You may be aware that the BBC are considering sponsoring street parties across England and Wales not in celebration of the Golden Jubilee but in celebration of the fact that last year they overtook commercial television in their viewing figures. Those street parties will stop at the border, because of course they have not done that in Scotland. There have been some reports in the paper about there being some concern within the BBC about that. To what extent do you think that commercial television's relative success in that in Scotland comes about as a consequence of its news and current affairs programming?
  (Mr Emslie) That is a difficult question. If you look at our regional output, the vast majority of the audiences we deliver to regional programmes comes from news and current affairs. We have half-hour news at six o'clock and it represents the biggest part of our output. In terms of audience size, there is no doubt that the peak time programmes deliver vastly bigger audiences across the network than regional news programmes. The Scottish audience traditionally likes entertainment programmes, they love quiz programmes, they love talent shows, they like to see people getting up and singing and competing and therefore the traditional ITV schedule, which on a Saturday night might be Blind Date or Stars In Their Eyes or Pop Idol, the soap operas, all do significantly better as you move north through the country than they do down in the south-east. It is a combination of the strength of the traditional ITV popular entertainment schedule and the fact that we are very local and regional broadcasters which sustains our position in the market. We do not want to lose that. What Neil said about us being regarded as the local station is very important to us. That is why we have been able to beat the BBC in Scotland by two clear percentage points in terms of our audience share. It is why Neil's Look Around programme, which to be fair is probably the highest rating programme on the ITV network in regional news, gets somewhere between a 50 and 60 per cent share of the audience where the average might be closer across the UK to 25 per cent. It is that unique combination of populism, entertainment and local and regional programming which will help us protect our audience.

Mr Sarwar

  134. Do you believe that your organisations are doing enough to cater for the needs of ethnic minority communities in terms of jobs and programmes?
  (Mr Emslie) The very brief answer to that is that we are not doing enough and it is a concern to me. We are doing a lot to improve relationships with the groups in Scotland. We have had a problem because of our financial position in terms of our advertising income and we have had a freeze on recruitment for the last six to eight months, but when we are able, we go out of our way to try to make sure we are recruiting. The answer is that at the moment people from the ethnic communities do not see us as an employer and we have to change that. We have to encourage them to come into the media industry.

  Chairman: May I thank you very much for your co-operation this morning and for your very full and frank answers? May I assure you that this will be very helpful to us when we come to making our report? Thank you very much. Order, order.





 
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