Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200
TUESDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1999
200. This Committee is considering the future
of parliamentary broadcasting and that future in terms of tomorrow's
media must surely be digital. When in your viewbecause
you are conflicting with some of the other evidence we have been
givendo we need to replace the cameras?
(Mr Lloyd) Some time in the next five years would
be my answer.
(Ms Sloman) I would agree with that.
201. Are there technical pressures at the other
end from those who make use of the material that is being produced
here for that change to come sooner?
(Mr Anderson) We are the people who are making use
202. I understand that. As the Chairman has
said, we have had a great deal of evidence and it has been suggested
to us in the past that we are here in the midst of this digital
revolution and there really is a great deal of pressure for change
now or certainly sooner than within the next five years, which
is why your comments about the cameras surprised me.
(Mr Phillips) I think it is important to distinguish
between two different things here. The first is that the possibilities
that are offered by digital broadcasting for many more channels
and more interactive services can clearly be provided off the
existing pictures. The only restriction on what cannot be provided
from the equipment as it currently exists is to have those pictures
on a wide screen. That does not prevent them from going out on
new digital services or on interactive services and obviously
those are important developments that will be a major part of
the Committee's deliberations.
203. I have been listening very carefully to
what you have had to say to us because what this Committee has
been told by other witnesses is that it would be necessary to
upgrade the existing equipment and such an upgrade would not be
cost-effective given that inevitably there will be a transfer
over to digital wide screen that is coming in the next five years,
as you have accepted. That is the cost-effective scenario that
we have been presented with so far which is why the argument has
really concertina'd down to this juncture, i.e. that it is a matter
for the coming negotiations to look at the replacement of the
equipment that is in situ at the moment. What you are saying
to us conflicts with all of that and would seem to be capable
of putting off the whole issue of the funding for new equipment
for a period of five years. That is in marked contrast with what
your colleagues on other occasions have told us.
(Ms Sloman) Let me try and square the circle here.
If new cameras are put into the Chamber they clearly need to be
digital wide screen cameras. It is certainly true there is no
point in replacing them with analogue equipment at the moment.
Yes, it would be desirable in many ways if the equipment was done
sooner rather than later. What the broadcasters are saying is
that this is a huge expense and we are content at the moment,
and the cameras will physically last with maybe a little bit of
repairs along the way, and mixed pictures will continue to go
out on British television for at least five years. It is very
different from digital channels as such, that part of the digital
revolution. The main channels will continue to take mixed pictures,
we think, for about five years. It is a loose prediction because
we would all have been wrong if we had sat here five years ago
and predicted the way things were going. That is our judgment
at the moment, it does not have to be made in the next few months,
204. Let me, if I may, take you back to the
remark that I made to Mr Lloyd a few moments ago. This Committee
is considering the future of parliamentary broadcasting. The Committee,
and possibly the House, are of the view that the coverage of Select
and Standing Committees is inadequate, that there are insufficient
facilities for that coverage both in terms of the availability
of cameras in this building and possibly for the future. Quite
clearly any additions in terms of equipment in this building,
any additions in terms of the new building over the road, are
going to be digital. The cameras in the Chamber are ten years
old. They were state of the art when they were installed, indeed
they were virtually designed for use in this Parliament, but they
are now ten years old, they are yesterday's technology, and somebody
has to pay to replace them. What this Committee, and possibly
a wider parliamentary audience, wishes to know is when is that
going to be done and how and who is going to pay for it? It is
all very well for Mr Lloyd to say we have got a very good system
here, it works, there is a wonderful union of parliamentary broadcasters
coming together under a limited company with non-executive parliamentary
directors and it works. It has worked but it is crunch time. When
is the equipment going to be replaced with modern digital equipment?
Who do you see paying for it?
(Ms Sloman) That is what the sub-committee has been
set up to discuss. I think it might help if I told you a bit about
the deal that has come out in Scotland and Wales because it is
a very different deal and it is a very clear deal. The Scottish
Office, who did the negotiations because it was before the elections,
accepted the argument that much of the feed nowadays is for internal
communication in a modern Parliament and they, therefore, starting
from fresh picked up a large portion of the initial costs of installation.
We were not told how big a slice of the portion, that was a closed
private commercial deal and we were not told. That then left the
rest of it, the cost of the feed, with Parliament picking up 60
per cent of the cost of the feed and the broadcasters picking
up 40 per cent. That was divided into eight shares, the 40 per
cent, of which the BBC pays four. Channel 5, who was one of the
other four, backed out and Parliament said "we will pay their
cost to save having to renegotiate and we will recoup it from
sales to foreign broadcasters. We will get our money back in due
course but we will pay the up front costs". Other broadcasters
pay on a fee basis. That was the basis in Scotland. The basis
in Wales was rather similar which was the cost was split between
the Assembly and broadcasters for kit, wiring and the feed at
50/50 and again there were six shares of which the BBC takes three.
There was an assumption that given the need for new equipment,
new state of the art equipment in 1999, they accepted that some
of the cost of that should be borne by the institution and not
by the broadcasters.
205. Is not what you have just told us that
in Scotland and Wales they do not play poker quite as well? It
seems to me that at the moment the broadcasters pick up the gross
expenditure each year to the extent of the budget previously agreed
by them and adopted by the Board at its summer meeting. You are
telling us that in Scotland and Wales you get away with paying
a lot less in effect and you are using that as a basis for trying
to say that in the renegotiation that should be a precedent for
what happens here. I think the figure you gave us earlier was
seven million over ten years, Mr Phillips, for the feed that you
have used. I would consider that, in the light of some of the
expenditures of your channels, to be excellent value for money
and I cannot see why you think it would not be. More than that,
if I were playing poker with you I would say "we have the
cards". You want the coverage that we have.
(Mr Anderson) But you want us to give you coverage.
Mr Pound: Not all of us.
206. But you want it.
(Mr Anderson) You want it.
207. In the modern age you could not put out
news night after night without being able to show that coverage
of what happens in Parliament because you have built up an expectation
in the public mind that you are going to be able to supply that.
I would suggest to you that the replacement of equipment in these
buildings that is going to fit us for the next ten years is an
extremely small price to pay for supplying your audience with
what it wants and with what it expects. Quite frankly, I am extremely
surprised that you are trying to present a case that would get
you away with paying less than that.
(Mr Lloyd) I do not read it that way, Mr Gardiner.
All of us here very much stand for the system that was brought
into being ten years ago. We believe it has worked and we believe
that it will continue to work. It is in that context that we are
anxious to continue, to keep all the users, all the core funders
of this signal, as one block working with you, with PARBUL, with
Parliament, to that end. I think the context of this is that we
are suggesting to you that there are dangers. If Parliament is
looking to oblige the broadcasters to fund all of the capital
equipment for the investment into digital coverage over the next
whenever it may happen to come up, whether it is two years from
now, whether it is three and a half years from now, there are
dangers in that. We wish to see this system prevail and to continue.
208. What dangers do you perceive?
(Mr Lloyd) There is a range of enthusiasms, shall
we say, within the broadcasters for continuing with the system
as it is. It is our brief, and very much our wish, to retain the
integrity of the system that we have built over these ten years.
209. I think the broadcasters might find that
there is a range of enthusiasms within the House of Commons as
well. I am not entirely certain that the entire House would support
the contention put forward by Mr Anderson a few moments ago which
was that we want it. However, what we can agree on is that certainly
a section of the public believe that it is part of the democratic
process and I doubt whether any of us would wish to gainsay that
after ten years of broadcasting. There was a suggestion in previous
evidence put forward that we might consider a World Service model.
The World Service, as you know, is directly grant funded by, in
their case, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and that money
is ring-fenced by the BBC to provide the services that the Foreign
Office effectively commissions. The BBC has, some would argue
very successfully, taken over the creation of the parliamentary
channel and the provision of the clean feed to those other broadcasters
who wish to use it. There is quite a strong case for saying that
might be done on a direct grant by Parliament, that the BBC, or
indeed another organisation but the BBC is doing it, could be
commissioned to do the job and paid for by a direct grant from
Parliament. How do you, as PARBUL, see that and is there any difference
of opinion there between those BBC shareholders and the others?
(Ms Sloman) I was present when you asked these questions
of my colleagues who were appearing for the BBC and I stand by
everything they said on that occasion. I have nothing to add to
their views on that. That is a matter for the BBC and not for
210. I am not entirely certain that all of your
colleagues will be aware of the BBC case so, briefly, could you
(Ms Sloman) The case is that we believe we have to
retain our independence, we have to retain our independence from
Parliament. We believe that parliamentary coverage should be funded
out of the licence fee in our case just like everything else,
it is part and parcel of everything we do and it cannot be parcelled
off as something separate.
211. Forgive me, we are not talking about what
coverage we carry, we are talking about who pays for the installation,
the cameras, control rooms, the equipment needed to cover Committees,
who then provides the feeds that other broadcasters may then use.
The latter is an editorial decision and the former is a straight
forward production function.
(Ms Sloman) We certainly have no problem with the
system that has been negotiated in Scotland and Wales whereby
Parliament and the Assembly are paying for some of the equipment
before they share it out between the broadcasters and, indeed,
are paying for part of the cost of the feed. If I could go back
to Mr Gardiner's point. Ten years have passed since this was negotiated
and there have been changes and you are right in a sense about
it being a case of who wants things most. We know the public want
to hear from Parliament. It is not even remotely on the table
that we do not do parliamentary coverage. It is not even worth
discussing. There is no doubt that in the negotiations in Scotland
and Wales members themselves are much more aware of television
and perhaps much less nervous of it than ten years ago when the
deal was negotiated in the Palace of Westminster and they did
want us there, there is no doubt they wanted us there because,
as Steve said, they felt it was important to the success of those
devolved bodies that the public got to see them on television.
David says it will collapse if we are not careful. As I explained
to you, it nearly did collapse in Scotland because there are some
people who will always want it more than others and the public
service broadcasters will always want it more than others. We
feel it is very important we stick together on this one and that
really is what we are saying, that we do think PARBUL has a virtue
in keeping everyone in line together on it.
Mr Gardiner: I do not disagree with what
you are saying about the situation in Scotland and Wales. All
I would say is that there is a categoric difference between the
devolved legislatures and the proceedings in Parliament. Whilst
it may have been perceived by the Scotland Office and others to
have been critical to getting the new legislative bodies into
the public eye in Scotland and Wales, that argument does not hold
here and therefore that leverage is not there. Chairman, you will
recall that on the last occasion when you raised the idea of a
devolved World Service-style parliamentary broadcasting unit I
similarly disagreed with it then. I do not think we should be
multiplying our models here and in fact I would favour looking
further than simply digital but actually to the Web casting and
making sure that ultimately all the proceedings in here by very
small lightweight technology are able to go out on the Internet
and it seems to me that that is the future of parliamentary broadcasting.
It is not setting up some monolithic unit that is going to focus
on TV digital distribution. I do think we have got to prepare
for that. I do think that we have to look at the investment in
the cameras and equipment that are needed for the next ten years
and I believe that it is you as broadcasters that should be putting
the investment into doing that.
212. Mr Lloyd or Mr Anderson, how would the
other PARBUL shareholders feel about simply buying a feed and
relying upon somebody else for making the investment in the technology
and taking the feed from whoever provided it on a straightforward
fee paying basis as you would from Reuters or PA or anybody else?
(Ms Sloman) I think I start off from the premise that
we do have a system which is mutually beneficial to all of us
and if one of us broke away from that or decided to go a separate
way it would fundamentally weaken everybody's position across
the broadcasting spectrum in paying for parliamentary coverage.
I would need to see the final detail of that more, who was paying,
who was controlling this feed before we could really sign up as
to whether this was a better proposition to us than exists at
the moment. There will be questions of editorial independence
and questions of financial independence.
(Mr Lloyd) I would be very sad to see PARBUL just
collapse or disappear or atrophy. I actually value greatly what
has been done over the last ten years. I think there has been
a continuing conversation between the broadcasters and the parliamentarians
about the coverage. I do feel that there has been a slightly "all
or nothing" feel to today's proceedings, i.e. either the
broadcasters must continue as they are and put in large amounts
of new capital investment, etcetera, or there is to be no PARBUL.
Likewise in terms of the rules of coverage, either we are talking
about wholesale licence or we are talking about the current rigidity
of the rules. I think in both cases there are middle positions,
there are variations from experience of what we have learned over
the last ten years and also brokered by the current state of terrestrial
and satellite television. The last thing to say is that it is
not as though we do not wish to look forward to the future of
parliamentary broadcasting, but we do think this is a proper dialogue
to be having and within the PARBUL framework.
213. What we are talking about is not the kind
of break down that I think you are hinting at now but the straightforward
funding of a production unit to do a job. It is a known fact that
I do not feel that the broadcasters have adequately covered the
committees, select committees, standing committees and other aspects
of parliamentary life outside the Chamber and the broadcasters
have said, in my view reasonably, "Well, yes, but who is
going to pay for all this?" One of the suggestions is that
there should be a unit that will generate all those signals and,
to take Mr Gardiner's point, will then provide material that would
be transmitted in the future on the Internet to give much wider
coverage than perhaps the broadcasters at present can or would
wish to pay to deliver. I think it is from that angle that we
are coming. What we are groping our way towards is a resolution
to those conflicting, on the one hand, financial and, on the other
hand, democratic requirements.
(Mr Anderson) Just to throw that back. If you are
talking ultimately of Webcasting then the logic of your position,
Mr Gardiner, is you are asking us to pay for all of the infrastructure
for material that can be put on the Internet.
214. In fact, much of the material the BBC is
already putting out on the Internet.
(Mr Anderson) That is fully funded by the BBC.
215. Absolutely. You as broadcasters should
be presenting a full balanced, fair and accurate account of parliamentary
proceedings. Parliamentary proceedings, as the Chairman has just
drawn your attention to, do not begin and end with the Chamber
in the House of Commons. Indeed, some would say that actually
that is a small though clearly the most important part of parliamentary
proceedings. Much of the work is done in the select committees
which you cover some of and much of the work is done in standing
committees which you cover none of. It is at the moment not a
fair and balanced accurate account of parliamentary life and that
is something that I think needs to be redressed. In fact, the
technology that you need to do that is getting to the point where
it can be done cheaply and that facility can then be made widely
available to people through the medium of the Internet.
(Mr Anderson) But not on ITV. We do not have the outlets
for all of that. So why should ITV be asked to stump up the sort
of money that you expect us to pay for a service that we will
216. Because it will be providing you with full
coverage from which you will select the most appropriate parts
for your need.
(Mr Anderson) Yes, but it will be a lot of wasted
money as far as ITV is concerned because 99 per cent of it we
will not want.
217. That is a commercial decision which you
will have to make?
(Mr Anderson) Yes.
218. Basically what you are saying is you are
prepared to pay for some of what you are getting now but you are
very reluctant from the sound of it to pay for any more than that
and ideally you would like to pay for less?
(Mr Anderson) Absolutely.
219. Which leads us straight into the trap that
I have now set for you which is that Parliament should own and
control the broadcasting and provide you with the feeds from which
you would then select, as you would from any other news source,
that which you wish to use.
(Mr Anderson) That is an option but I think what we
are after is a reassessment of the current rules and what we think
is a fairer break down in the costs of the establishment of new
equipment and the maintenance of it.
(Ms Sloman) We do not think it is an either/or situation.
I suspect that Parliament would balk even more than broadcasters
if they understood the size of the capital investment that would
be needed even with new lightweight equipment for every Committee.
We are asking to have a slightly clearer definition of the split
of the costs. I think it is not unreasonable after ten years to
say "let us have a look at it". That is what we are
saying, let us have a look at it, that is what the PARBUL sub-committee
has been set up to do.