Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
WEDNESDAY 17 JULY 2002
60. You mean The Guardian is wrong?
(Mr Davies) Yes. As far as I know, there is no board
meeting this afternoon but there is one tomorrow. We will not
be taking a paper on this subject tomorrow; it may come up verbally
but we will not be taking a paper. We intend to get this matter
settled by the autumn essentially, so the timing is certainly
wrong. We have not yet, therefore, as Governors seen what the
Executive is going to propose in its paper but I have written
to the Chairmen of both the Labour Party and the Conservative
Party explicitly saying that neither the Governors nor the Executive
has any intention of dumbing down political coverage, reducing
the amount of time or money spent on parliamentary coverage, or
anything of that sort. We do think it is our public service duty,
as the leader of the Conservative Party said yesterday, to cover
very adequately our Houses of Parliament.
61. I am sure they will be reassured.
(Mr Davies) May I just add
62. Well, we only have ten minutes each so I
would like to ask my questions.
(Mr Davies)But that does not mean we leave
in tablets of stone everything we try to do.
63. I am glad you said that having tried to
cut you off because I can now move to Greg Dyke and ask how will
you fit in then, not keeping things in tablets of stone, with
trying to bring in a younger audience without "dumbing down"?
How are you going to get that balance made?
(Mr Dyke) That is the trick.
64. Let us into the secret.
(Mr Dyke) I could not tell you the secret but I can
tell you what we are trying to do. We have had a lot of discussions
here, and they have been very helpful, with the Modernisation
Committee about broadcasting in Parliament and how we do it and
where we can interview people and all sorts of things, and a lot
of progress has been made and we thank members of Parliament for
that because I think that alone will help in making the whole
process seem more dynamic. We started that review last November,
and why did we do it? Because we recognise there is a problem
of disengagement from politics amongst certain generations. Now,
it is not our job in any way to make people vote but it is part
of our job to involve people in the political process so we started
preparing, which when you read some of the papers is quite funny
but we started from a very aspirational moral position, a paper
which says "How do we involve more people in this process?",
and we have done an enormous amount of research, as you can guess
the BBC does, both qualitative and quantitative, which will form
the basis for a number of recommendations which will go to board
of Governors in the autumn. I will just say that we have no intention
of reducing the amount of time we devote to covering politics;
actually we will increase the amount of money we devote to covering
politics; we do not intend to reduce the amount of money we spend
or the time we spend on covering Parliament, and we will not be
dumbing down the output. What we will be trying to do is exactly
what you say: is there a way of bringing in different, younger
people, people disenchanted with politics, without, crucially,
alienating the by and large traditional, which tends to be over
50, audience because they are our heartland. We cannot afford
to alienate or lose them so we have to keep our traditional programming
to keep them, or a large chunk, while at the same time trying
to change the programming to attract a younger audience.
65. So it is a question really of additionality,
you are saying, rather than substitution?
(Mr Dyke) No. There could be some substitution.
66. But what?
(Mr Dyke) Well, that has to go into the report of
the Governors and the Governors might not agree with our proposals.
We are piloting a lot of different things this autumn but the
one thing I can assure you of is that there is no easywell,
you all knowsolution to this. It will be difficult and
that is why we are going to try and pilot a number of different
programmes, and while some of those will be trying to bring politics
and make it very relevant to younger audiences, others will be
piloted for more traditional audiences. I think the whole experience
of Westminster is quite interesting, and our drama budgets are
nothing to do with this but I think the idea of whether you could
use drama money is interesting and we have asked our drama department
to come up with some ideas about politics.
67. Maybe the drama department could give training
to politicians to be more dramatic in the Chamber! But can I move
on now to the balance sheet, if I may? I am very keen on there
being flexibility and also transparency in the BBC's accountsI
think we all are on this Committee and I think the BBC is toobut
you will be aware that there is always the question of the BBC
getting involved in commercial ventures, which I welcome, but
using the licence fee to cross-subsidise, and the BBC has got
some very strict rules on that and the BBC always say and maintain
that this is not being done. In order to give extra satisfaction
to your commercial competitors as well as this Committee, why
do you consistently refuse to allow the National Audit Office
to audit your accounts and to investigate you from time to time,
which would give that little bit of extra satisfaction?
(Mr Davies) Could I ask Pauline to comment on this?
(Dame Pauline Neville-Jones) I think the straightforward
and honest answer is that we are extremely comprehensively and
thoroughly audited by our commercial auditors.
68. Then what have you to worry about?
(Dame Pauline Neville-Jones) I do not think it is
necessary to have two lots of auditors. The National Audit Office
is not in a position to substitute for commercial auditors. In
other words, we would have to have two lots of auditors.
69. Do you not think it gives out the wrong
signals? I have no doubt you are properly auditedyou have
good accountantsbut you do not have to pay the National
Audit Office. What have you to hide? Nothing. Therefore, does
it not send out the wrong signals, this stubborn refusal to allow
the National Audit Office to investigate from time to time as
they see fit?
(Dame Pauline Neville-Jones) I am not going to accept
the characterisation. I do not think there is the need for the
National Audit Office to do it and I think there are considerable
downsides in the NAO doing it.
70. What are they?
(Dame Pauline Neville-Jones) Let me explain. The BBC
is not a government department; it is not therefore part of government
policy; and I think it is wrong and damaging to send out the sort
of signal that auditing by the government auditor would give.
It is very important to maintain the independence of the BBC and
the independence of the BBC's remit and the appearance of its
total separation from government, and therefore I do not think
it is a very good idea.
71. But do you accept you are publicly funded,
albeit by the licence fee?
(Dame Pauline Neville-Jones) Then we would have a
situation by which the Chairman or Director General would have
to appear before the PAC, and you start getting into the question
of how is it, therefore, that the BBC is serving government policy,
because that is what the PAC is there to examine. I do not think
that is what the BBC should be examined on. The right people to
be examining this are yourselves as public service broadcasting,
so I think there are some downsides in having the National Audit
Office involved and I do not think it is necessary.
Chairman: I am afraid we have to move
on, but I will add a coda to that, which is this: the BBC is created
by Parliament and it would not exist if Parliament did not create
it. The BBC's independence which Sir Christopher Bland used to
proclaim the whole time is its independence in terms of politicians
not interfering with its programmingthat is the BBC's independence.
The idea that Parliament, which creates you and funds you, ought
not to have the right for the NAO to investigate you I have to
say, Dame Pauline, is a misuse of the very important ethos of
BBC independence in terms of politicians not interfering in any
way with what you broadcast.
Michael Fabricant: And to suggest this
Committee can substitute for the NAO is, frankly, ridiculous.
72. We have our incredible merits but we are
(Mr Davies) I am not sure the NAO is constituted to
look at entities like the BBC. It is not, in fact.
(Dame Pauline Neville-Jones) It does not do commercial
(Mr Davies) No, so it is not clear to me they are
the right body. If you look at when this started in 1983 with
the National Audit Act, at that stage there were maybe 30 public
corporations trading in the market place, including the BBC, none
of whom were audited by the NAO. Now the majority of the others
have been privatised leaving the BBC looking more of an anomaly,
but it was correctly put, in my opinion, that in a family of public
corporations separate from government departments, and we are
not a government department, that the NAO should not have jurisdiction
over us or indeed, I think I am right in saying, John, the ability
to audit. There are different types of audit and it is very different
to audit a government department spending public money from an
entity like the BBC which is operating in the market place.
73. Can I go back, Mr Dyke, to what you said
to Mr Fabricant when you said you were not going to reduce the
amount of time that you spend on politics as a result of your
review. Can you reassure us that you will not swap channels and
put politics on digital and BBC1 in a politics free zone?
(Mr Dyke) Yes. The letter I wrote this week to a number
of members of Parliament said precisely that. I particularly talked
about BBC1 and BBC2 for exactly that reason. That is not to say
we cannot to additional things on those but it is not our intention
to take programming off BBC1 and 2 and put it on to the digital
channels. However, it probably will be our intention to do additional
coverage of Parliament on those channels.
74. But that is promise that will be perpetuated
over the next few years, and not just in the following year?
(Mr Dyke) I suspect all bets are off at the stage
of analogue switch-off, because at that stage everybody can receive
and then it is a different position, but it is the point Mr Bryant
was making earlier: that our fundamental responsibility must be
to the people who cannot receive digital.
(Mr Davies) Also, I can assure you that whatever we
do in the next few months and implement we will monitor, and if
it turns out that we have made mistakes or should rethink we will.
We have done this before; we have rethought and made changes and
that is precisely how we will approach it this time.
75. Can I move on? If Mr Blair is a braver politician
than I expect he is he might just have a referendum on the single
currency in the next few months, and given that this is a very
unusual situation for Britain in that the BBC covers general elections
as well and that is a fair and well thought out process, a referendum
is different and I wondered what the Governors felt about ensuring
that a fair and balanced coverage is maintained?
(Lord Ryder of Wensum) That is a very good question.
Coverage of the referendum for the BBC and all other broadcasting
outlets will be more difficult than a general election, because
the ground rules are in place for a general election and we have
only had one major national referendum before, some time ago.
Certainly since I have joined the Governors of the BBC I have
raised this and I know that preparations are being put in hand
to ensure proper fairness throughout a campaign. It is difficult
but already plans are afoot so that fairness is achieved. I can
also tell you that we have as Governors during the last three
or four months ensured that the code of conduct for all BBC employees
is the same for referenda as it is for elections, and the use
of the words "referendum" and "referenda"
have been added to the codes of conduct for all the employees
for the BBC.
76. Will this become public knowledge as to
what is put in place and how the BBC will cover any referendum,
or are we just going to have to rely on you to stand up and say,
"We did not think that was fair", afterwards?
(Lord Ryder of Wensum) No. As you will know far better
than I do, the organisations on one side or the other in a referendum
are not yet in place. They are changing all the time. There is
a "Yes" campaign and a "No" campaign; the
people involved in those campaigns are changing all the time;
the chairmanships change; the various organisations and how they
are funded change; and until that becomes clearer I think it would
be quite difficult to come to any concrete decisions. If we came
to concrete decisions now and there was a different set of people
in place differently funded in X months' or years' time I think
we would have cause to regret it.
(Mr Davies) And we will publish the rules that we
are imposing on the news division, as we do in elections.
(Mr Dyke) In the objectives that we have done for
the director of public policy and the controller of that policy
this year, like you we recognised that there could be a referendum
and therefore it is specifically referred to. You are rightit
is going to be, I suspect, much harder than a general election.
77. And it is too late once the vote has been
(Mr Dyke) I agree. It is too late afterwards to say,
"Oh, sorry, we have got it wrong".
78. Can I just go back to digital switch-off?
What do you think of the Government's plans to switch off analogue
between 2006 and 2010? How is that going to be achieved in the
(Mr Dyke) One of the reasons we got involved in bidding
for DTT was, as was made clear earlier, that we would have real
difficulty justifying a lot of our digital programming if we did
not believe that at some stage analogue was going to go. What
was clear in the work we did on DTT is that there is something
like 30-35 per cent of the population who do not want pay television
and are not going to pay for it, and if digital can only come
to them through pay television it is never going to get there,
therefore it seemed to us that the success of DTT is in a pretty
parlous statepublic confidence in it has gone for the moment,
and that is why I went into free-to-air and all those sorts of
thingsbut more importantly, the single biggest problem
about analogue switch-off is going to be second, third and fourth
sets around the house, because what we describe at the moment
as a digital home is a home with one digital television set.
79. So is 2010 realistic?
(Mr Dyke) It could be. It depends on what develops
out of DTT. It is going to be called an adaptor rather than a
box and, as those adaptors get cheaper, as they will, the second
set problem becomes manageable. Once you can buy something and
just plug it into the back of your set, plug the aerial in and
it still worksand I see someone is going to bring one on
to the market next year for £29.99 but I will believe that
when I see it, but now they are down below £100 and they
will probably halve over the next two to three yearsthen
you begin to see it is possible.