Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)



  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 easy—well, you all know—solution 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 accounts—I think we all are on this Committee and I think the BBC is too—but 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 audited—you have good accountants—but 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 programming—that 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 not accountants.
  (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 audits.
  (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.

Miss Kirkbride

  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 right—it is going to be, I suspect, much harder than a general election.

  77. And it is too late once the vote has been counted.
  (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 present climate?
  (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 state—public confidence in it has gone for the moment, and that is why I went into free-to-air and all those sorts of things—but 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 works—and 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 years—then you begin to see it is possible.

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