Select Committee on Broadcasting Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 177 - 179)



Mr Gale

  177. Good afternoon, lady, gentlemen. Thank you for your memorandum and thank you for joining us this afternoon. The Committee believes that its evidence sessions on the future of parliamentary broadcasting would not be complete without hearing from the PARBUL shareholders. Before I invite you to make an introductory statement, I would be grateful if you could, from left to right—camera left, camera right—introduce yourselves for the record.

  (Ms Sloman) My name is Anne Sloman. I am the BBC's Chief Political Adviser and one of the four BBC members of the PARBUL board.
  (Mr Anderson) My name is Steve Anderson, I am the Controller of News and Current Affairs at ITV and I am the ITV representative on the PARBUL board.
  (Mr Lloyd) I am David Lloyd. I am Head of News and Current Affairs and Business at Channel 4. I am also Channel 4's member of the PARBUL.
  (Mr Phillips) I am Peter Phillips. I am the BBC's Finance Director for its news and current affairs and I am the second of the BBC members of the PARBUL board.

  178. Thank you very much indeed. Before we start the questioning I have a rather peculiar duty to perform. I have to declare a personal interest because, although we resisted it, members of the Broadcasting Committee found themselves appointed as non-executive directors of PARBUL. It was my view at the time that it was inappropriate for members of this Committee sitting in scrutiny on broadcasters to themselves be members of the board but others in high places felt that this was a tradition that had been established and so the Chairman, Eric Clarke, and myself and Andrew Stunell are members of the board. That needs to be recorded as a matter of interest. Before we start the questioning do any of you wish to make an introductory statement?
  (Mr Anderson) Yes, Chairman. Each of us will make a short statement, if that is okay, and I will lead off. First of all, thank you very much for inviting us here today to give evidence to the Committee, it is much appreciated. I thought first I would briefly like to recap and refresh people's memory of the current broadcasting situation and who is using the material that is supplied through the PARBUL mechanism because it is quite a wide and varied output across British television and impressive. It is worth just reflecting on that. First of all, on the main BBC 1 Channel, there is the Nine O'Clock, Six O'Clock and One O'Clock news programmes, very broad agendas, but parliament and parliamentary business and activity absolutely at the core of its cover. It is a huge operation across the road in Millbank charged with delivering political coverage, programmes every day, watched by a total audience of about 12 million people. At ITV, where I work, there are three big news programmes, Lunchtime, Evening and Nightly News programmes, again watched by anywhere between 10 to 11 million people collectively, very broadly based but with Michael Brunson's team at Westminster as its spearhead, heavily reliant on the pictures and things that come out of Westminster. Also, we have the 24 hour news reports from Sky, the BBC and, possibly in the near future, ITN, live coverage of business in the Chamber, absolutely essential. At the heavier end of the market on a daily basis there is Newsnight on BBC2 and Channel 4 News, extensive coverage of domestic politics, hugely dependant on parliamentary coverage. Finally, the new kid on the block, Channel 5. 5 News has a radically different editorial agenda but it still does have a dedicated political editor, so who is saying what at Westminster actually matters to them as well. So, uniquely, five terrestrial channels, plus Sky, and the other cable and satellite 24 hour services, not to mention Radio 5 Live, News Direct, Talk Radio, all the independent local radio stations and BBC local radio, all with one common goal which is parliamentary coverage provided through the PARBUL mechanism. So PARBUL works for us and it gives us all a stake in parliamentary coverage. We would recommend wholeheartedly that it continues as a useful forum, tying us in together and forcing us to take a keen interest in how Parliament is covered. Breaking it up could unfortunately lead to several broadcasters drifting off and reducing coverage of the House which I think we would all agree would be a retrograde step. There is no disguising that we have begun to encounter problems with the PARBUL system over the last 18 months and we feel it is time to question the status quo. Its rules have worked well up until now but we think that it is time they changed. At this point I will bring Anne Sloman in to comment further.
  (Ms Sloman) Just endorsing what Steve Anderson has said, we do very much welcome the Committee's interest in PARBUL. We do feel that it has worked very well and our questioning, and our desire to question which we will come on to later, really comes from a very strong desire to take this positively into the next century, not just a carp about the current arrangements but to think of very positive ways forward to take PARBUL forward to the next century. It is a good moment to look at it. We are concerned that the rules established ten years ago for coverage are really desperately out of date. We think that now there should be sufficient trust and confidence between broadcasters and Parliament to relax them. My colleague, David Lloyd, will talk about that in some detail in a moment. You remember when parliamentary broadcasting was established there was a feeling of nervousness I think on the side of Parliament. We hope that nothing has happened in the meantime and that now people will feel we can go forward. It is interesting that in Scotland and Wales a much more open regime has been established and one that from the broadcasters' point of view, and I think from the politicians' as well, has been a great deal more satisfactory. I am very happy to answer questions about the financial basis of the settlement in Scotland and Wales later if you wish to ask me in detail about that. In terms of the coverage rules, there really are not any and in Scotland they very much took the view that the cameras were there as a surrogate for being in the public gallery, so anything you can see in the public gallery should be available on the electorate's television screens at home; the same has happened in Wales. The effect of the rules is to make the coverage incredibly static compared with other serious outside broadcast events, for example party conferences. Parliament looks different even to a non-television professional because we are so hampered by the static nature of the rules. I think another point is access to the building. Politicians often complain to us that action is taking place at Millbank or, when the weather is nice, on College Green but that has happened because the broadcasters cannot get into the Palace of Westminster. When I was in the Scottish Parliament last week they have got much less space in the temporary building but they have set aside what is known as the black and white corridor with a fixed point where short, brief interviews can be given. It has been negotiated very carefully so that it does not impinge on the privacy of Members of Parliament or, indeed, the writing press who sometimes want to talk to people without it being seen who they are talking to. It is an arrangement that is working and it is making the place seem much more lively to the audiences. In the permanent building this has been built in as a point of principle in the design that there will be access points, and there are access points in Wales too. Before I hand over to David to talk about the detailed rules, there is just one point we want to leave no uncertainty about and that is we are not asking for any relaxation of the rules that prevents parliamentary coverage being used on satire light entertainment drama programmes. We are talking entirely in the context of news and current affairs and serious factual programming, we are not asking at any point to renegotiate that rule which we know Parliament feels strongly about and which we endorse.
  (Mr Lloyd) Chairman, thank you. I went back to the text of the rules as they currently exist and to the objective as stated in those rules. The objective is as follows: "the director should seek to give a full, balanced, fair and accurate account of proceedings". While I think it is true that broadcasters can demonstrate their obligation throughout the last ten years to fair and balanced coverage, I think we all have to ask whether these rules as they currently are can possibly be judged to deliver coverage that is full and accurate? Let us take, first of all, if I may, the stricture against close-up shots. The technical rule states: "The standard format for depicting the Member who has the floor should be a head and shoulders shot, not a close-up". I think it is fair to ask why exactly? The whole point about modern television direction is that a close-up is sometimes appropriate, and sometimes not. All good directors use the close-up sparingly so as not to devalue the coinage. So why is it, I think we must ask, that a director can be trusted to judge the use of close-ups at a party conference, on Newsnight, on Channel 4 News, but not in the Chamber of the House of Commons? Small wonder perhaps that some of our viewers find the coverage distant and unexciting as a result. Take, again, perhaps the protocol on cut-away shots. "Occasional cut-away shots to illustrate individual reactions are allowed, but only to show a Member who has been referred to by the Member speaking". The point, though, about any political debate, surely—one might say about any human interaction—is that it cannot be fully or accurately represented within such stilted regulations. No wonder again that some of our viewers find so much of the coverage lacking in the very dynamic that they experienced when sitting in the public gallery, and yet the objective, clearly stated, was to have been a full and accurate account of proceedings. One should not forget that this concession as to cut-aways is not vouchsafed in Question Time, Private Notice Questions or Ministerial Statements. Here any depiction of interest, or even disinterest, on the part of any Member referred to is out of bounds to our audience, your electorate. All this within the stated rubric of providing a full and accurate account of proceedings. Now, in the time available to me I will pass over the resistance to the use of panning shots even though they are part of the everyday parlance of today's television, or a situation where there are two virtually identical wide-angles of the Chamber provided, one of which may be used for live transmission and one of which may not. It is precisely because, from the broadcaster's side, I was there at the outset of this experiment and was privy to the negotiation of the rules at the time, that I hope I can declare with some authority that the need for the great majority of those rules really has now passed. As a broadcaster I spend a great deal of my time thinking how to bring current affairs in general, and politics in particular, home to a younger under-35 audience. This is the generation that has an enormous visual literacy with an instantaneous instinct for anything that they regard as at all dull, stuffy, old-fashioned. If it is any of those things then they do not watch. I have to say that if we were to loosen the shackles of the current rules I believe that the director could be allowed to portray the business of the House as fully and accurately as any other aspect of politics. We could then allow the viewer the same engagement as is vouchsafed to anyone in the public gallery and, we all hope, bring a new audience to politics and relocate a departed one.

  179. Thank you. Mr Phillips?
  (Mr Phillips) The other area where the PARBUL shareholders feel that there is a need to look again at the arrangements with PARBUL is around its funding. Through PARBUL the broadcaster shareholders have paid some £7 million to televise Parliament over the last decade including all of the operating costs of PARBUL. Over that same period Parliament has also paid a substantial amount although slightly less, we estimate around £5 million, mostly in investment in facilities. There is currently no clear set of principles as to what Parliament should pay for and what the broadcasters should pay for. Clear rules have been established for the Scottish Parliament and for the Welsh Assembly and we believe that these are helpful both for the broadcasters and for the bodies themselves. The principles that we need cover two main funding issues. The first one is who pays for capital investment and the second is who pays for operating costs? We believe that the extent to which the broadcasters or Parliament should pay for capital needs to reflect to some extent which of the parties is driving the need for that particular investment. As one example, the broadcasters do not feel currently that major investment in new equipment for the Chambers is a priority given their financial constraints as they believe that the equipment could continue for some time. On the operating costs, the broadcasters currently, as I have said, pay for all the operating costs for televising Westminster. It is interesting to note that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly both make substantial contributions to the operating costs of televising their proceedings as well as paying for most or all of the relevant capital investment. The broadcasters have raised these points already with the parliamentary members of PARBUL and as a result at a PARBUL Board meeting in July it was agreed that a committee of three representatives from the broadcasters, along with Sir Alan Haselhurst, Lord Thomson and the Leader of the House, would review the question on PARBUL's funding later this autumn.

  Mr Gale: Thank you very much indeed. In a moment I am going to ask Eileen Gordon to pursue the matter of changing the rules but I do not think I can let these points get away when one or two of the observations that have been made Eileen may not be aware of. First of all, it would be interesting in a moment if you could clarify in terms of close-up shots where you believe you should be allowed to zoom because a zoom, of course, can be used very effectively indeed for dramatic effect. I think that some of my colleagues might find the blurring of the lines between reporting and drama a little uncomfortable to accept. You have laid some emphasis on the fact that coverage should be full and accurate but, of course, most of what the viewers see is neither because it is taken out of context and used by the broadcasters to highlight or to illustrate programmes rather than to be seen in the full context unedited. You may wish to comment on that. Mrs Gordon, would you like to start the questioning?

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