Examination of Witnesses (Questions 800-805)|
THURSDAY 27 JUNE 2002
800. What do you think the relationship should
be between the BBC and OFCOM?
(Professor Porter) VLV's view is that it should be
kept separate from OFCOM. Obviously there are certain areas, such
as minimum programme standards, that the BBC should continue to
meet so that they are level across the sector, but in our view
the BBC is differently financed and therefore it should have a
different form of governance. We think it would be a mistake to
bring everything under OFCOM because the way in which the BBC
should be governed involves a number of questions which seem to
us to be a lot more subtle and delicate than those with which
OFCOM is charged. In particular, I think one of the areas of the
BBC is actually developing areas of creativity and encouraging
forms of promotion of cultural activity within Britain through
the music field or audiovisual field or literary field and these
are quite distinct from the sorts of activities that OFCOM is
charged with doing. The other key area is the question of children's
programmes. It is very important in our view that there should
be a good provision of domestically generated children's programmes.
This is an area where the BBC has been active and, although there
have been these types of programmes in the field of the commercially
financed public service broadcasters, they are now in a more difficult
position because they do not have the revenue to cover this. For
this whole range of reasons, we see the BBC as a specifically
public service broadcasting organisation which should only relate
to OFCOM in certain limited areas.
Lord Hussey of North Bradley
801. I would very much like to support what
the professor has just said, which very much accords with my own
views on the BBC, particularly for children's programmes and religious
programmes. Really I just have that comment of gratitude, but
would you also convey my good wishes to Jocelyn Hay.
(Professor Porter) Of course.
802. Clauses 182-186 set up a system for Channels
3, 4 and 5 to regulate themselves. There is the annual statement
of programme policy; there is quite considerable power under 183
of OFCOM to influence that; and then, under clause 187, OFCOM
can intervene if they think the broadcaster is failing to carry
out its remit. Are you broadly content with that?
(Professor Porter) I think there is a degree of danger
in that. Partly it has to do with the powers and responsibilities
and duties of OFCOM in general. I think if the powers and duties
of OFCOM were strengthened in the direction which we have indicated,
the approach of the self-regulation co-regulation which is envisaged
in the draft bill would become, as it were, more acceptable. The
difficulty, I think, as it is formulated at the moment, is that
what it sets up is a form of opposition between essentially self-regulating,
commercially financed channels and OFCOM, which then would seem
as a body in opposition to the wishes of the commercial channels.
The difficulty about this, I think, is the question of precisely
how those duties are formulated, how the duties of the Content
Board are formulated. All these things mix together in rather
a complex pattern and we feel at the moment that the Government
has not yet got the balance right.
(Mr Petley) From our point of view, we feel that,
as things are at the moment, there is a slight element of shutting
the stable door after the horse has bolted. The second thing is
that, when you think about the powers of OFCOM, you have to think
about OFCOM not up against Carlton or any other major broadcaster
but, as it could be, Vivendi or Disney. Are these people going
to listen to a body with very limited powers? I think probably
(Mr Redding) I support what Vincent has said. I think
there is a cascade of things here. The first is that if there
is not a duty in the list of duties for OFCOM to promote and protect
the interests of the citizens, then are they going to be doing
that when it comes to that regulatory system you outline? Secondly,
much of the responsibility for the way that the system operates
on the regulator's side is going to rest with this thing called
the Content Board. We see the Content Board as something potentially
very important to citizens, as a sort of home for citizens interests
within this whole structure, but we cannot read that out from
the bill at the moment because all that the bill says in clause
18 is that the Content Board shall have such functions as OFCOM
may confer on the board. Here is a second level where something
with regard to citizenship needs to be provided. I think the actual
operation of the system will play itself out in practice but one
of the important things in terms of voluntary sector organisations,
such as those from where we come, is that there is participation
and there is representation and there is some kind of stakeholder's
place for the voice of civil society in the way that that system
operates once the bill becomes an act. I would just like to add
a couple of other things. To make the system work well requires
having the right public service remit. Steve has mentioned that
we feel it needs refining. There are two points particularly on
that. In the White Paper there was a statement of the mix of core
requirements which public service broadcasters would have to provide
in Tier 3it was specific to Tier 3and it included
two things which have now been left out of the remit, clauses
180 and 181 of the bill, international issues and science. I cannot
speak very well for science but my organisation, 3WE, is backed
by 360 international development organisations and we would like
to see the word "international" go back in there because
at the moment it is only reflected in news and current affairs.
I know colleagues support me on that. One last point, if I may.
Within the system you have asked us about, Mr Harvey, there is
clause 187 2(a), which is where we come on to some of the more
serious powers of OFCOM or the Content Board. It speaks of these
powers coming into operation if there is "a serious failure"
as OFCOM deems it and if it is not "mitigated by economic
circumstances". Without necessarily suggesting that those
phrases are struck out of the bill, we do see a danger there,
that there is an easy get out at any time the economic circumstances,
particularly for the commercial broadcasters, are very, very difficult.
At any time they can plead that in their defence for dropping
an element of the remit.
803. I think, broadly, taking the three contributions,
it is not so much the structures that are proposed which alarm
you but the fact that OFCOM itself, as currently envisaged, is
there as a fairly dry economic regulator and not as something
charged with a sort of public interest/citizen interest perspective,
and that if it is working according to its currently envisaged
set of duties, there is a complete area not covered and you are
then left worried. Might the Consumer Panel offer any possibility
for addressing some of these issues if it were to be beefed up
a bit? You are saying there is nowhere in the structure for the
sort of citizen interests to be argued or represented. Might that
conceivably be an area for potential?
(Professor Porter) It does seem to us anyway that
the Consumer Panel actually addresses different issues. It is
actually really about delivering systems either from the telecoms
operator or from the broadcaster to the consumer. At the moment
we do not have any guarantee that the viewer or listener gets
a specific level of signal or can complain about the quality of
the service or quality of signal that they are getting. This issue
starts to become much more important as we move from analogue
to digital because the characteristics of the digital signal are
different. We see the Consumer Panel as dealing with these issues
and perhaps establishing some form of dispute resolution mechanism
for aggrieved viewers or listeners who feel they are not getting
signals, and that would be different from the sorts of issues
you are raising.
804. It is, indeed. The draft bill at the moment
envisages for the Consumer Panel exactly what you describe. Certainly
that is very important. Representing an area which has a lot of
difficulties with television reception and is not likely to be
among the foremost to get broadband, I am acutely aware of that.
I certainly would not want the Consumer Panel not to attend to
those important matters. I think what I am asking you collectively
is whether or not you think there would be an argument for broadening
the work of the Consumer Panel to turn it into something rather
wider on top of that.
(Professor Porter) We would be against that. We think
there is a great danger of mixing chalk and cheese. The sort of
expertise that you would require on the Consumer Panel would,
in our view, be quite different from the sorts of expertise that
you would require on the Content Boardindeed, the membership
would be quite differentso we think the Government is very
right to keep these two issues separate. We do not think this
Government has got it right yet in terms of setting up the terms
of reference for the Content Board.
(Mr Petley) In answer to your original question, I
think the secret here lies in strengthening the Content Board.
I think the thing that we find most concerning in the bill's current
wording is that clause 18 (3) says that the board will have a
"significant influence" on OFCOM decisions. We think
it should be something much, much stronger than that.
Chairman: You should know that our online forum
very much supports many of the positions you are taking. For example,
Nigel Gibbons of Bristol wrote, "Any new structure such as
OFCOM needs to have its framework right, otherwise it will become
an open invitation to reduce and cut the range and quality of
factual, religious and children's programming." That is quite
a consistent theme that is emerging. It is quite interesting that
it is these citizenship issues that are coming up time and time
again, with very, very little interest in competition issues.
So you have a fair wind behind you. I recommend that you not just
look at but engage in the online forumand, indeed, your
members. The last question is from Lord Pilkington.
Lord Pilkington of Oxenford: Everyone else has
asked my questions: I have no last question. I was going to ask
you about the Content Board and Consumer Panel. All I would ask,
if you have any detailed amendments to the clauses in the Content
Board, is that you get them in to us as quickly as possible because
we are reporting by the end of July.
805. Do all the remarks you have made apply
equally, in your judgment, to radio? When we talk about broadcasting,
are we also talking about radio?
(Professor Porter) In my view, yes. The Council of
Europe resolution, for instance, deals with both television and
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.