Select Committee on Broadcasting Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  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 view—because you are conflicting with some of the other evidence we have been given—do 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.

Mr Lepper

  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 of it.

  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.

Mr Gardiner

  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, that decision.

Mr Gale

  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.

Mr Gardiner

  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.

Mr Gale

  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 PARBUL.

  210. I am not entirely certain that all of your colleagues will be aware of the BBC case so, briefly, could you restate it?
  (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.

Mr Gardiner

  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 not use?

  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.

Mr Gale

  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.

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