Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 151 - 159)



  Chairman: Gentlemen, very nice indeed to see you this morning. We are moving briskly along. Mr Keen.

Mr Keen

  151. It is a changing world, is it not, and I presume that, as a trade union your main concern is protecting workers, who, more than anything, usually, want security and to be able to look forward to earning reasonable money for a reasonable period ahead, to plan their own lives. Could you tell us how you think employment patterns, or will there be a pattern, if there is a pattern, what will those patterns of employment be, over the next five or ten years? It must be something that concerns your members greatly.

  (Mr Lennon) I think, like previous witnesses, we would not want to be drawn into making firm predictions of what will happen in five or ten years' time; things are changing very quickly. If you are asking about the existing trends in the industry, many of them fuelled by the kinds of developments that OFCOM will be regulating, then, without question, what we are seeing is a reduction in the amount of permanent, secure employment in stable workplaces, and an explosion of casualised, freelance, insecure working. This applies not only to traditional sectors, like actual programme production in radio, television and film, but it applies also to some of the emerging areas of authoring for multimedia and the related tasks that the new technology demand.
  (Mr Egan) Just to supplement what Tony said. In fact, we are seeing a three-tier workforce, in our view. We have got a shrinking core of permanent staff, in places like the BBC, ITV, etc, then you have got a layer of people on fixed-term contracts, which may be working for a year or two at a time, sometimes on a rolling basis, but still without permanency, security of employment, and, beyond that, as Tony has been pointing out, an increasing number of pure freelances, a casualised labour force, and, indeed, outside of the broadcasters, in the independent production sector, the workforce is almost totally casualised. That is the picture that we have to live with.

  152. It must be especially difficult for your members, or certainly bands of your members. To use an old sort of generalisation, chartered accountants, we look upon those sorts of people as very stable individuals, but people in the creative arts tend to be not so stable as individuals, they need that spark, and for them to be in an industry which is changing rapidly and giving them lack of security it must be very, very difficult for them to operate in; is that not so?
  (Mr Egan) It is very difficult, and what it throws up for us is an issue about training and retraining, to keep pace with technological developments. Now if you are working as a technician in the industry, you have got to be familiar with, obviously, digital technology, and things are changing all the time. If you work in a casualised industry, there is no provision for in-house training, for learning as you go, for apprenticeships, or quasi-apprenticeships, there is very little of that now. The BBC still does some of that, and used to be very good; outside of that, you have got no prospect of learning in a structured way. So we rely now on an input that is industry-wide, through our training organisation, Skillset, to provide people with those kinds of opportunities to keep pace. But that is the name of the game for people, if you cannot keep pace with the technology, you do not get your next job.

  153. Do the new companies in the business really understand the need to have trained staff available? Up till now, as maybe the BBC have cut back, there have been plenty of staff available. But it is an expanding industry really, is it not, and do the new companies understand the need for training, are they assisting you, are they helping people? Because you need money to organise, and yet, if the staff are disparate, really it must be difficult to continue to get subscriptions in from staff. How does this all fit in together?
  (Mr Egan) If you have got an industry that is casualised, in terms of the labour market, but also fragmented in terms of the companies within it, you cannot look to in-house training, if that is the issue we are talking about, you cannot, as a small company, nor would we expect them to, invest a lot of resources in some kind of in-house training. What you can do, and it is in their interest as well, is to pool some resources across the sector, which provides training opportunities for people, to provide the skilled labour force that they, the companies, will then benefit from. And through Skillset, the training organisation, and through the Audio-Visual Industry Training Group, which is backed by the DCMS, there are initiatives now about funding for training, which will provide across-the-board training standards, so that each company can pitch its bit in but then can use that trained labour force at the end of the day. There is, obviously, therefore, a collective interest in a collective approach to training.

  154. So is there a training levy imposed, or is it voluntary?
  (Mr Egan) It is not a levy, there are different funds that are available, but, very crudely, very broadly, the idea is that, as far as possible, companies will support voluntarily collective initiatives on training, but not be expected 100 per cent to fund that training within their own organisation.

  155. Would you like a regulator to take some part in that and force companies who do not do it at the moment to do it?
  (Mr Egan) We certainly would; we welcome the fact that the White Paper gives a role on training to OFCOM. We would like to see OFCOM monitoring and setting training standards, particularly looking at licence commitments, say, for ITV companies, and the like, on training, and working closely with those bodies that we have been mentioning, like Skillset, which again is mentioned in the White Paper. So we welcome that; we think it is a good development.


  156. You are a trade union; as a trade union, you have a responsibility and a role, which is to protect the interests of your members. To what extent though is protecting the interests of your members more secure through what appears to come out of your paper, namely, an addiction to a status quo that, to some extent, you are familiar with and can control? There are those who would say that this is a somewhat Luddite document you have sent us.
  (Mr Lennon) The first thing, I do not think we are addicted to the status quo, and this is not an industry in which our members are known for smashing up machines, it is quite the opposite; so I think we have got to reject the accusation of Luddism. The position we have taken, in respect of two key issues, the creation of the single regulator and the regulation of content, is, I think, pragmatic. We acknowledge that the convergence that is occurring has made it quite apparent for some years now that there needs to be an overarching view of what is happening in this field of technological development, so the single regulator makes sense from that point of view. We are concerned, however, that content will somehow get lost in the sheer scale of the regulator that is going to be created, and we are advocating positive regulation of content, not just as a means of protecting people's jobs, because whatever happens there will still be employment in this sector, whether it is secure or insecure, we are aiming to try to focus on the regulation of content in OFCOM as a means of ensuring that the standards that people have become accustomed to in the audio-visual industry in the UK are maintained, as technology converges and the number of outlets increases. So it is not a protectionist position that we are taking, it is one where, on behalf of people in the industry, we are trying to defend the professional, artistic, editorial standards that have been taken for granted for many years in both radio and television.

  157. But if you look at those standards, it is a curious thing, is it not, that there is now implanted, after nearly 80 years of the BBC, in British television, wherever it comes from, an interesting consciousness of the ethos of public service broadcasting? That does not mean, necessarily, that everybody provides it; after all, Channel Five could not be accused, by its fiercest enemies, of providing public service broadcasting. On the other hand, on digital channels, people are having a go at providing public service broadcasting, because that is what they are interested in. I do not refer only to the arts channels, though it is interesting that they should come along; if you look at E4, which is a few days old, it is certainly not my cup of tea, but it is there to provide for a segment of the population which feels it is under-represented on television, of course it is there to make money, but, nevertheless, it is within the ethos. So do we need now, in the year 2001, to be that het up about protecting public service broadcasting, considering also that the BBC is not always the strongest protector of it?
  (Mr Lennon) The White Paper quotes at length from a passage in a report about the BBC, commissioned last year by the Ministry, which details the perils of market failure in providing the kind of diet of public service broadcasting that we have become used to. I think the question that fairly can be asked is whether or not the market, left to its own devices, would come up with the mix of programming and the standards that people have come to take for granted that is provided currently by public service broadcasting. And, it is interesting, the developments you have mentioned all fall roughly within what we would see as the public service family of regulated broadcasters in the UK, all of whom have certain minimum standards to meet and requirements incumbent on them to deliver quality programming. Whilst I do not think we would knock, unnecessarily, many of the new channels, it is significant that, in multi-channel households, the existing mainstream channels have still got a very loyal audience, not 100 per cent of the audience, by any means. And, anecdotally, if you have cable television yourself, I think you must realise there is a bit of a difference between what you will see on BBC2 or Channel Four and the consumer channels, run on much lower budgets, aimed at a very small and undemanding audience. So the answer to your question is, I think, that, with uncertainty about the ability of the market to deliver the kind of mix we have become used to, it may well be dangerous to throw away the regulatory framework we have lived with for a long time, and one which has delivered, I think, arguably, the highest qualities of broadcast TV in the world.

  158. It is perfectly true that BBC1 and channel three are the two biggest channels, that Channel Four is very successful within the limits of its remit, so, one might say, probably, is BBC2, but the reason that those channels have got the size of audience that they have got is related to the fact that, at present, there are "only" seven million households that subscribe to digital. Now our first witnesses today were looking at the possibility, within the next five years, of something like two-thirds of households being subscribers to digital TV; and once people actually have access to all these channels they are going to mix and match a very great deal more than they do now, simply because they have got the chance to do so. And it is quite boring, actually, to log into BBC1, when you have always been able to watch BBC1. I am far from knocking the concept of public service broadcasting, but it seems to me that there is no need for us to get quite so neurotic about dangers to its future, I am not saying you are but as some people might be?
  (Mr Lennon) I do not think we are being neurotic, we are being—

  159. No, I am not saying you are being neurotic.
  (Mr Lennon) Let us just draw the comparison with the United States, where already this morning we have heard mention of the FCC and what is available on US television. It is a fair observation that, although the American system delivers a lot of quality production, very often it is delivered not through channels that are free-to-air, it turns up on subscription. Now the tradition of public service broadcasting in the UK is that high quality programmes will be made available free at the point of consumption, and we have got five channels still working to that remit, both the BBC and ITV are expanding with new channels, which, provided you have bought the terrestrial box, will be free at the point of consumption. And if you take away the regulatory framework, which has put that burden on broadcasters, some of whom are commercial, to deliver that quality product for free, then I think you will see the gradual emigration of quality programming off free-to-air channels, onto platforms where subscription, or even `pay per view', can be earned by the broadcaster.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 16 February 2001