Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820-827)|
THURSDAY 27 JUNE 2002
820. May I move to the questions relating to
public service broadcasting issues. Where those are concerned,
you share the views of the Independent Television Commission to
a large extent. In particular, you say that the current draft
means that the remits for public service broadcasters will be
far too general, referring to clause 182. But is not the remit
there effectively simply to translate what has been the remit
as agreed under their licence and is in any case necessarily filled
out by the structure of statements of programme policy they are
obliged to make and in due course will be checked against the
general requirement for public service television broadcasting.
Why do you need the remit in particular to become more detailed?
(Ms Lennard) I think on this we have not done extremely
detailed work ourselves, but, given that the Independent Television
Commission is the existing content regulator, regulating existing
commercial broadcasters, we take extremely seriously their view
and we are also aware of the fact that the ITC itself has been
rightly withdrawing from extremely detailed, heavy-handed regulations,
more sort of overall regulation, and therefore, if the ITC considers
that there are possible defects in the current drafting of the
bill, we would take that on board very seriously.
821. For these purposes, you are representing
the views of the ITC not of consumers
(Ms Lennard) I think so, yes. The other point on which
we did also agree with them very strongly is the fact that, under
the current drafting of the bill, OFCOM would only be required
to produce a statement across public service broadcasting generally
every three years, whereas the broadcasters would be required
to produce annual statements of programming policy.
822. Does the BBC not produce an annual statement
of programming policy at its own discretion?
(Ms Lennard) Yes, it does.
823. What are you saying should be happening,
that the annual statement of programming policy and the three
year review of the general requirements for public service television
broadcasting should be brought together as if they were one and
the same thing?
(Ms Lennard) No ... Well, that OFCOM should be required
to produce an overall statement on public service broadcasting
annually rather than every three years. It may not be as detailed
as one it might produce every, say, two or three years, but, given
that the broadcasters are going to be producing their annual statements
of programming policy with reference to what OFCOM is saying every
three years, it does seem to me that those two periods ought to
be aligned together.
824. You do not see any distinction between
annual tactical monitoring of how programming policy should meet
the general requirement and a three-year "stand back and
review it"? The one-year and the three-year are complementary
to one another. Leaving aside the issue of whether the annual
statement of programming policy, given that they are not regulated
in the same way, can diverge with one another, in effectbut,
leaving that on one sidethe one-year and the three-year
structure, you do not see a distinction between those two things?
(Ms Bradley) There is a distinction clearly. The first
is monitoring the extent to which people do what they say they
are going to do. The second, every three years, is looking at
the overall delivery of all public service broadcasters across
the piece to look at whether we have got what we want. Quite clearly
they are different. We are not suggesting that one should replace
the other but rather that the second, which we take to be the
most importantwhich is the review of not whether people
are doing what they say they will do but rather whether or not
we are as consumer or citizens getting what we ought to get by
way of public service broadcastingis a very important co-regulatory
function that OFCOM will have. I think it is one of the slight
ambiguities in some areas of the bill where it talks about self-regulation,
and, on the whole, what we have in the bill is co-regulation always,
with back-stop powers from OFCOM. It is about how often OFCOM
reviews what is happening under the self-regulatory regime to
look at the extent to which it needs to interest itself in it.
We would like that to happen on a more regular basis.
825. Let us say that every three years there
is this review of the general requirements of public service television,
and, if OFCOM takes the view that one of the licensed public service
broadcasters has not meant a sufficient contribution to that,
they can issue directions. They have no powers in relation to
the BBC. Do you think that is a satisfactory situation?
(Ms Bradley) We have argued throughout these debates
that the BBC should be subject to the same regulation as other
service providers and brought within the terms of OFCOM. I think
it is our view at this juncture that in fact both the arrangements
that are being proposed in the bill and the changes being made
at the BBC in relation to the role of the governors and the extent
to which they will follow the same pattern of reporting that OFCOM
are establishing, mean that there is a huge amount of convergence.
What we would want to see is a commitment to reviewing that very
carefully at the point of charter renewal.
826. I detect a slight change in your evidence.
You may be interested to know from the online forum that Robert
Beveridge of Napier and Edinburgh Universities actually supports
your idea of the BBC being fully under OFCOM. He sees that as
a way of getting away from government interference in the BBC.
But I would like you to develop what you have just said because
it is a movement. I think some of us were a little surprised that
the National Consumer Council, of all organisations, would want
to tip the BBC into an organisation of which we do not know the
structure, we do not know the chairman, we do not know the ethos,
we do not know whether it will be one of these bodies that is
totally dominated by competition. Why have the governors failed
so completely that you would buy this particular pig in a poke?
(Ms Bradley) Let's hope it is not a pig in a poke.
I think we have more optimism about the way that OFCOM will fulfill
its responsibilities, perhaps. Yes, there are questions about
whether it would achieve that, but that is what we believe and
we are of the view generally that such regulatory arrangements
serve consumers well. Saying that the BBC should be part of that
arrangement does not necessarily imply that the board of governors
are doing a bad job; it is rather looking at what the BBC are
delivering and their part in the overall broadcasting ecology
which leads us to the view that they ought to be part of this
structure. At the beginning of this debate the National Consumer
Council was very clear that consumer interest in arriving at a
single regulator was all about convergence and the delivery of
a universal service, both in terms of channels and in terms of
content, and the BBC is the primary but not the only deliverer
of universal service and content. It makes no sense to us, therefore,
to see that primary deliverer of public service broadcasting outwith
the basic regulatory framework. We also think that it is very
difficult to arrive at and unsatisfactory to have a situation
where a non-executive board are responsible for the strategy and
positioning of an organisation such as the BBC and is also responsible
for the regulation. And I think we would agree with the professor
quoted, that actually the BBC, in its reporting directly to the
Secretary of State, has a line of report, albeit established as
an independent body, which might benefit from having more distance,
which we believe a regulator would have.
827. Just to repeat your reply to Mr Lansley,
you concede that it might be better to make that final decision
at Charter Review when in fact we may have a better idea also
of the kind of body OFCOM actually is than doing it now.
(Ms Bradley) Not for that reason but because I think
pragmatically it is not possible to make those changes until Charter
Review. We see a lot of changes which have taken place in the
interim which give us the sense that people are understanding
that we are moving in a direction where we need some more coherence
between the two regulatory arrangements. So it is a pragmatic
position. I have to say also that we are rather concerned that
what are some very, very important issues about communications
will become very over-dominated by debates about not just the
BBC but broadcasting and we are keen to give space to make sure
we take all the other issues.
(Ms Lennard) Could I just add that putting the BBC
eventually within OFCOM would not imply that it was being regulated
in the same way. OFCOM is going to have to regulate a variety
of bodies which will all have their different remits and different
functions and it will have to do that according to the remit.
Going back to statements about programming policy, what this does
give us is a couple of years hopefully to see how the commercial
broadcasters and the BBC are producing those statements of programming
policy and to get that process more closely aligned, so that we
can see the whole of the PSB and also, hopefully, in the run up
to Charter Review, see best how the BBC can be brought more sensibly
within OFCOM. We have a little more time now for those processes
to be more closely allied together, particularly with the statements
and monitoring the programming policy.
Chairman: Unfortunately, we have run out of
time, but it would be useful if you could e-mail or write to us
because you suggest, along with a lot of other people, that you
want OFCOM to be able to penalise the BBC on a similar basis to
the other licensed producers but not in such a way that punishes
licence fee payers. This subject has come up several times and
there have been several suggestions. If you could write to us
with your own suggestions as to what means might be used, that
would be very welcome. Thank you both very much indeed.