Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 18)



  Chairman: Good morning. Thank you very much for coming to see us and inaugurating the public sessions in this inquiry. If you think we are not up to full numbers today, that is partly because two of our colleagues are having to shuttle backwards and forwards between this and the Hunting Bill Committee next door on which they are serving. Another of our colleagues is in the chair for that, in addition to which another of our colleagues is in Kosovo. One reason we invited you is because, when your organisation appeared before us last time, we regarded the evidence you provided as particularly valuable, so we are going to launch straight into questioning with Mr Fearn.

Mr Fearn

  1. You argue that the White Paper lacks an overall framework clarifying the role of public service broadcasting. What would you see as the main elements of such a framework which are missing, if any, and there must be some.
  (Ms Bradley) What we have in the White Paper is a restatement of what we already have which are some very broad parameters for public service broadcasting of the BBC, which are encapsulated in the Charter.

  2. You are not saying that the White Paper is useless?

  (Ms Bradley) No, but it does not take the debate further forward. You have the existing situation where you have some very broad parameters for the BBC, some very specific requirements laid on the other public service broadcasters. The sort of thing that we would wish to see in a framework for public service broadcasting would require a much closer look at the purpose public service broadcasting fulfils for consumers. Our thoughts on how that might be done are to look at some of the characteristics of markets and services, products and services, which consumers should expect, particularly where there is a universal access requirement. In other words, we think everyone should be able to access it. Some of the issues we think need to be addressed in that framework are, first of all, the need for universal access; the need for choice—and I would emphasise here that we are talking not just about many providers but diversity of offering. One can have three providers and much diversity. One can have ten providers and no diversity at all. A very strong emphasis on consumer information. Equal treatment of consumers and that addresses the need to meet the needs of disadvantaged consumers as well as general consumers and proper consumer redress. We want all of those issues addressed in the public service broadcasting framework and criteria developed for measuring whether or not particular offerings are part of the public service broadcasting role.

  3. You mentioned the disadvantaged people within the community. What about subtitling? How important is that to consumers? How many use subtitles at the moment? Have you any idea?
  (Ms Lennard) As far as we are aware, about five million people use subtitles regularly and obviously more will use them frequently.

  4. Are those people who are generally deaf or hard of hearing?
  (Ms Lennard) Yes.

  5. Or elderly or people who just like to read subtitles?
  (Ms  Lennard) People who have hearing impairment. As well as those, we are also concerned about people with other types of disabilities, with visual impairment, for whom the switch to particular screen-based information is going to be difficult in the digital age. We think far more proactive work needs to be done in terms of public policy, but also initiatives by the industry, because universal access is the overriding concern. This is not a small market for the industry and there needs to be far more action by government and by industry, making sure that the services and the equipment which delivers them are fully accessible by people who have various types of disability. That is the way we will achieve proper social inclusion.

  6. Do you think the White Paper takes forward government policy on early analogue switch-off? We hear of 2010, which seems a long way away.
  (Ms  Bradley) Our view is that the policy on analogue switch-off was developed prior to the White Paper and is again restated in the context of the White Paper. We have some particular concerns about analogue switch-off. There is in effect very little done to help consumers to allow earlier switch-off to take place. There is not the thoroughgoing information campaign which would be needed to explain to consumers what the options are and what the benefits might be. Consumers are very confused about what to do and voting with their feet, as consumers do when they are confused. We are also concerned to know how the Government will address that question about the residue, and there will be a residue no matter what happens in the next period of people who—

  7. Five million?
  (Ms Bradley) Yes, who will not buy into digital and are interested to know about whether or not they will consider using the funds from analogue sales to support the final step.
  (Ms Lennard) We thought the two key tests laid down by the Secretary of State were admirable. The problem is about the clarity of detail and how one achieves particularly that universal access to digital equipment. The White Paper is not particularly clear on that. We are also represented on the DCMS Advisory Group on digital switchover on the information campaign and on the viewers' panel. We are very pleased to be there but we have felt that there has been an insufficient lead from the Department in terms of public policy. Given that we now have digital broadcasting and equipment in shops, people need to be confident that the information that they can obtain is both objective, independent and easy to understand, which is not a mean feat in this area.

  Mr Fearn: We have noted insufficient lead from the Government. Thank you.

Derek Wyatt

  8. Do you have any reservations at all on the idea of an OFCOM?
  (Ms Bradley) No. We have been campaigning for a single regulator that should cover both economic and content questions and take a flexible approach to regulation across the whole of the communications sector for some three or four years. We are very pleased to see that the Government have now adopted this view too.

  9. Do you feel on the public service side that, in digital, firemen, doctors, A&E and perhaps yourselves should have your own special channels?
  (Ms Lennard) It is not something that has been exercising us. We are very pleased with a lot of the White Paper and much of it is what we have been lobbying on for quite a number of years, but there are some deficiencies linked to the absence of a proper framework for public service broadcasting. We need a discussion about the long term funding of public service broadcasting, not only the viability in future of the licence fee but also the pressures on ITV companies, on their advertising revenue. If we are going to have public service broadcasting delivered by a number of broadcasters, not simply one, how can we secure and enhance its long term future? How can we encourage new entrants into the market to broaden the scope of public service broadcasting? We think we have to have a much more imaginative debate about all of the possible options for funding in the future.

  10. Do you accept that digitisation will happen in one form or other and inevitably that will lead to a decline in viewership for BBC1 and BBC2? Nobody watches BBC News 24; good luck with 3 and 4; nobody would watch those either. As fewer people watch the public service, the public will therefore say, "Why are we paying for it?". That is not mentioned at all in the White Paper. In 2010, the BBC will not be there in the same form it is now. We ought to be having these discussions now to protect public service broadcasting. How would you fund it?
  (Ms Bradley) We absolutely agree with you that we ought to be having these discussions now in order to protect public service broadcasting. I take issue a little with the vision you have which is that it is quite possible that there might be more players in the public service broadcasting ecology rather than fewer, but if that were to happen we need to have a very clear sense of what public service broadcasting is there for and how it can be achieved and we need to look at different ways of funding it, which comes back to your question. One of the questions we want to explore further is the question of having some additional public service broadcasting fund. It may be additional to the current arrangements for the BBC. In the longer term, they may be drawn into that as well, but we would certainly create a new fund for potentially new entrants not just to broadcasting but particularly to public service broadcasting so that the number of players increases.

  11. A way of doing that would be just to let the OFCOM director general take ten per cent of the licence fee and keep it and for people to bid for a public service chest. Artsworld and Performance are two arts channels which are public service which the BBC will not do; yet they want a stack of money to do it on BBC3 and 4. Sport does not have a public service channel. The BBC will launch a commercial channel in the Autumn. They refuse to do the school curriculum through BBC education. They have made education not one of their public services now, which I find quite disgraceful. I would like a fund of £300 or £400 million to be able to put the school curriculum on television. I think that is a public service. If they are not prepared to define it or fulfil it, who will do that if it is not OFCOM?
  (Ms Bradley) It should be OFCOM. Whether OFCOM should be top-slicing the licence fee money which goes to the BBC for public service broadcasting is a separate issue.

  12. Where would you get your money then if you would like a fund? We paid for the Open University with a £3 million allocation in 1968 from the licence fee. This is not a new phenomenon.
  (Ms Bradley) No, and we need to look at whether we can manage within the amount of money available for public service broadcasting right now. Until we have defined what we want from public service broadcasting, we are not in a position to say how much money we need to fund it. The arguments you are making are very good ones to support the case for bringing the BBC under the OFCOM umbrella. It just does not make sense from the consumer point of view to have the major broadcaster outside the orbit of OFCOM. We do not believe that arguments about maintaining editorial independence in any way support the need to keep it separate. Indeed, there is a real sense in which those arguments suggest somehow that by being regulated in a different way ITV and the other broadcasters are constantly interfered with. That is clearly not the case. We wish everyone to be brought under the same umbrella.


  13. On the public service remit of the BBC and other public service broadcasting, Mr Wyatt has said the BBC is going to fund BBC3 and 4; nobody will watch them but good luck to them anyhow. To what extent ought we to wish good luck to them? One of these is to be a youth-orientated channel. We have just had the launch by Channel 4 of their E4, which is a youth-orientated channel. Do we really need to spend public money on another which nobody will watch? Even Channel 4 are saying that what they are hoping for, to begin with, on E4 is 100,000 viewers. That is a risk they are taking. Again, Mr Wyatt spoke about the arts channel and the point that we have two already. Both of them are very serious channels; they do not trivialise. Do we really need another out of public money? It may well be the audience will be very small and one moves along further. We have had a discussion with an expert earlier today and he took the view, which I think is already being borne out by developments, that in order to retain a substantial audience, the BBC on its main channels has already begun a dumbing down process. To what extent do you believe that the BBC can dumb down in order to retain viewers with the BBC while retaining the justification of a licence through a regressive poll tax to finance something which many people may no longer define as public service broadcasting in any case?
  (Ms Bradley) All the questions you raise are very important. We would ask them too. I cannot say that we have answers, precisely because we do not think it is clear how the respective roles of the BBC and the other public service broadcasters are balanced and whether, in our overall framework for public service broadcasting, we are seeking, for example, to have only one channel of each of the sorts that might be defined, or one offering, or whether we want to have a diversity and what the difference in those channels might be if there is a claim that they are diverse and serving different audiences. We have no idea, because we have not considered it and it is a policy decision, what size audience justifies public expenditure. We have not looked at the difference between licence fee funding and funding through general taxation as ways of paying for these things more equitably; or indeed raising money by other means. We go back repeatedly to the notion that there must be a clear statement which takes into account this jigsaw of providers of public service and sets the BBC not apart but alongside the other providers.
  (Ms Lennard) We do not think it is possible or very wise to make decisions about proposals for new BBC services without going back to not only the performance and role of their current digital services but the overall remit and position of the BBC. When we did our report on public service broadcasting a year or two ago, we were very supportive of the BBC as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting, but we were struck by the generality of its obligations. Whether decisions are taken about whether or not it is dumbing down has to be set against what criteria one is using to assess that. The current remit of the BBC lays down such general criteria for BBC television and radio services. We do not want them to be so detailed that they go back to box ticking, but they have to be much clearer than they are and lend themselves much better to independent scrutiny and to be seen within this overall map of public service broadcasting. There may well be a case for there to be a diversity of channels on a particular aspect, particularly as the BBC is offering channels without advertising, which is another aspect of viewer choice; and yet again if the BBC were within OFCOM it may decide that a commercial channel should be offering a particular service rather than the BBC in a perfectly valid way, as long as that is taken in a transparent decision-making process. Again, it is the criteria and map of public service broadcasting, so we can see where the BBC and the other providers sit. In terms of consumer interest in public service broadcasting, the latest ITC research does show very considerable support for the free-to-air channels, even in multi-channel homes, but what we are trying to do is predict consumer behaviour over the next few years which, in communications above all, is a very tricky act to follow.

  14. In relation to the public service remit and the nature of public service broadcasting without advertising, so far as I can see the BBC to a considerable degree, in order to be able to do what it regards as public service broadcasting, is hybridising it in any case. I stuck doggedly through the three episodes of The Greeks broadcast over the last three weekends. They were not really BBC programmes at all; they were mid-Atlantic programmes, jointly financed with Americans, with lots of American experts put in in order to make Americans feel it was acceptable to them. There was an absolutely brilliant actor as commentator, Mr Liam Neeson, who was clearly chosen because his Irish accent was acceptable on both sides of the Atlantic. Is that really the kind of public service broadcasting which we look to from the BBC? I suppose it was serious to the extent that it was very stodgy. Secondly, when you say the BBC is programming without advertising, would that extend in your view to BBC Online? The Secretary of State, when he came before us, took the view, which is a view I share, that there is no conceivable reason why there should not be advertising on the online service because it is of an entirely different nature from advertising on televised or radio services. Thirdly, the licence. From 1 October, several million people are no longer paying for their licence and the licence is simply a paper token, I am glad to say, as far as they are concerned. There are rumours that the Government may extend that perhaps to all pensioners. On that basis, can the licence survive as a way of financing the BBC through public funds?
  (Ms Bradley) On the commercialisation of public service broadcasting, the commercial imperative impacting on the quality of public service broadcasting which I think is the root of what you are saying about The Greeks, and other broadcasting, it seems to us that this is precisely one of the reasons why we need to understand the BBC's public service broadcasting role. There is no question that over the past period they have engaged in broadcasting which is of a much more commercial nature. There is no distinction being made between that which is fundamentally public service broadcasting and that which is about revenue and income generation and the positioning of the BBC as a major broadcaster in international markets. In principle, we have no difficulty with the BBC having a role in both respects and there is no question that economically it must be a good thing for the BBC to be active in those international markets, but if there is no clarity about the role that the BBC are fulfilling in public service broadcasting terms there is indeed a danger that the standards which are applied and the intent of the work will change. That means that we feel the BBC's role needs to be as clearly defined as that of other public service broadcasters so that we can differentiate those two elements. On the licence fee, it is our view that the current situation is probably not sustainable because the more it increases the more of a burden it is and, as you rightly say, it is a regressive tax. If it creates a situation where great numbers of people do not have to pay, because it is a regressive tax and they cannot afford to, you reduce the overall pool. When we gave evidence in relation to the Davies Committee, we said that the question about the licence fee was really cart before horse. Until one had defined the role and looked at what role the BBC was going to fulfil, one could not possibly ask about funding. It may be the answer to the question about funding was not a licence fee, at least not in the medium term.
  (Ms Lennard) On the online services, one has to come back to what is the role for the BBC's public service and then one can decide whether there should be advertising on it. One has to clarify the role first and how it should be funded. We have not taken a view on that but we are clear about the importance of defining that role in the first place and, as a more general answer, having the BBC subject to independent scrutiny and regulation, so that these considerations can be taken independently by the regulatory authority, backed up by, we hope, very strong, detailed consumer research, both by the regulatory authority and the broadcasters.

Derek Wyatt

  15. If we look at the landscape, it seems to me that if you look at computer sales at Christmas worldwide they were down. There seems to be an ownership factor of about 35 per cent in the United Kingdom and it seems to be peaking. If you look at cable and satellite distribution, it seems to be about 35 per cent, maybe the same 35 per cent, but there seems to be a peaking of the sale. Then you have digital convergence or change or WAP or whatever it is, but there are some fundamental, huge, significant, technological developments coming. Do you think the Government should just bite the bullet and say that it is so fundamental that we should just give a box away free and enable the whole community overnight, perhaps over 18 months in terms of getting it ordered and putting it in position. We just cannot have this fudge where the very wealthy can get access to the net and digital but two-thirds of the population are just having four terrestrial channels, five if they are lucky.
  (Ms Bradley) This is slightly dodging your question but our view is that the Government has a responsibility to ensure in the end that everyone has access. We are a consumer organisation, not a citizen organisation. One of the key differences between the two for us are questions around taxation which are fundamentally about what we want as citizens. As a consumer organisation, we are very conscious of the fact that, by calling for action to be taken by government, we are now allowing a burden on all of us as citizens and we would be cautious about doing that if we think it unnecessary. If we can arrive at a higher penetration by means other than pure government subsidy, we should do so, but there must be a very clear eye on the part of government, which is partly the question we have about the benefits of analogue sale and what is done with that money. If there is a residual problem, the Government must bite that bullet and address it by making the technology available.
  (Ms Lennard) The White Paper has some very worthy targets, particularly universal Internet access by 2005, but it is not clear what universal Internet access will mean. One of the questions we will raise in our response is what does that mean but particularly does that mean access locally in the community? What does it mean in terms of peoples' skills, knowledge and confidence? We think OFCOM should have some duty to do with media literacy and education in terms of promotion. There may be particular groups—for example, people with severe mobility difficulties—where it needs a public policy decision. Are there particular groups that we as a society would wish to prioritise in terms of assistance with equipment and use of those services? We are about to publish this week some research we have done on consumers' use of online services. It is no surprise that there is a particular lack of confidence and access amongst poorer people, older people and other disadvantaged groups. The other factors, as well as cost, are those to do with confidence in terms of security of personal information and confidence, knowledge and skills in using the services. These are complex issues which the Government needs to address quite urgently.

Mr Keen

  16. You said the licence fee is not sustainable and you argue that because you say it is a regressive tax. Is that not nonsense? If you took it away and left it to the market, if people were paying a so-called regressive tax of £100 a year, how much would they have to pay to get fewer programmes? They would be paying an awful lot more, would they not?
  (Ms Bradley) We are not saying that the licence fee is definitely unsustainable. We think it may be. By saying that the licence fee may be unsustainable, we are not jumping to the conclusion that the market must deliver. Drawing on many areas of the provision of goods and services, it is our view that there are often areas in which universal service of the sort that we wish to see as a society can simply not be delivered by markets. There is a very great danger in many of those areas that market failure will result. We think that will be the case for public service broadcasting. We think there must be public funding, but there are many ways of funding things publicly and many of them are relatively invisible. We were astonished when we did our first work on public service broadcasting how many people thought that the only public service broadcaster was the BBC. They thought that because they are the people who we pay a licence fee to. What they did not acknowledge, because it is very opaque, is the subsidies which other public service broadcasters effectively receive by virtue of their access to the network, which is a source of public funding, albeit in kind. If we did not subsidise it and provide them with access, we would be selling it. That is a cost to the economy, so there are many ways in which we fund things publicly, and we need to look a bit more critically at which are most appropriate in this environment.

  17. I am not asking these questions in an antagonistic way. Is it not nonsense to say that the BBC is a public service broadcaster and Sky is not? What part of the BBC production is public service? Education is one thing. Should that not really be paid for by the Department for Education and Employment and targeted at the curriculum? There are other educational programmes which are put out for people like me who have no time to go through a university degree. Most of the television I watch is either football or education, just for the enjoyment of being educated. It is nothing to do with trying to get some sort of degree. What part of BBC production is what you class as public service broadcasting?
  (Ms  Bradley) We would say public service broadcasting is about the diversity of programming not just in education but in providing information and entertainment. Because of the very particular role the broadcasting content and communications content generally plays in giving us a sense of shared cultural identity, one of public service broadcasting's major roles is to create that across the spectrum of broadcasting. One of the things that the BBC provides which other public service broadcasters do not is one or two channels in which all of the content is effectively public service broadcasting, because it covers the whole spectrum of broadcasting that we might want in order to create that cultural identity. That is a difference between them and ITV, for instance.

  18. That is a really good definition of it which I have not heard before in any of the sessions we have had. I put questions last time to Sky. I said, "Is Sky News public service broadcasting?" They said, "Yes." I said, "Is the sports news from Sky public service broadcasting?" They said, "Yes." I said, "Is extended football public service broadcasting?" It is to me. They said, "Yes." I was trying to show that the division we have now between public services is not understood. I think we define it wrongly. Is the BBC not to do with public service broadcasting versus not public service broadcasting but a different way of paying for the service? It is part of commercial competition but one is provided by everybody for a universal fee. They get excellent value. If it is a regressive tax, if you took that means of collection away from everybody, what would poor people have to pay to get what they have been paying £100 a year for? They would have to pay £500 a year.
  (Ms Lennard) This is why we are extremely anxious about the very serious danger of market failure in this respect. In our report on public service broadcasting, we saw subscription TV and pay TV as erecting barriers, particularly for those people who cannot afford it or who may not want to pay for broadcasting in that sense. The other component that we would see as extremely important which relates to diversity is that of risk-taking and innovation. Here, Channel 4 is a very interesting example of a different kind of remit that one can give to a public service broadcasting channel, but we would also see it as an extremely important and integral part of the BBC's duty in terms of not having those market pressures that commercial broadcasters have in terms of worrying about advertising revenue, to do that kind of risk-taking and innovative programming. As viewers and listeners, we can criticise or praise the offerings given to us but it is virtually impossible for us to say what we actually do want to see. Occasionally, things will fail and we will see what we do not want to see or listen to, but it is the risk-taking element which is also critical.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. That was very informative. One of the things I find very satisfying about the evidence your organisation gives is that you are not on any kind of tramlines. Thank you very much indeed.

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