Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 474 - 479)



  Chairman: Thank you for coming to see us as part of our inquiry. Your presence justifies and has become a regular feature and we have always found your visits extremely helpful.

Michael Fabricant

  474. I found the advice and information that you gave to the Standing Committee of the OFCOM Bill very helpful. Thank you for that. What I really want to pursue in a few moments is the whole question of your views regarding the BBC and its relationship to OFCOM. Before I do that, I was just wondering about this. I am looking at the wording: there is going to be a Communications Consumer Panel, is there not, under the terms of OFCOM? Could you say what actually prevents OFCOM from completely ignoring the views of that panel? Does the panel have any teeth?

  (Ms Bradley) That rather depends on the way it is constructed. It seems to us that such a panel is essential to ensure that OFCOM has available to it all of the special interests which they need to hear which relate to consumer interests because OFCOM has to take other interests on board as well. Taking that as a given, we would wish there to be some review from time to time as to the extent to which OFCOM had taken note of the advice given by the Consumer Panel. That is not to say that we expect that OFCOM will always do what the Consumer Panel recommends because the argument for the panel implies necessarily that sometimes the interests of consumers will not be the same as the broader public interest, which OFCOM will be interested in fulfilling. We would want to know why they have not taken on board that advice and that should be a matter of public record and period review.

  475. Have you had any feedback at all from either the DTI or DCMS as to whether this will be part of the statutory obligation of OFCOM enshrined in the Act?
  (Ms Lennard) I think we have gathered that it is almost certain that OFCOM will be under a general duty to give reasons for its decisions. I think we would like a little more detail than that and it would be very helpful if it also had a duty to say publicly where it disagreed with any recommendations from the Consumer Panel. So we think it is generally probably going to go in the right direction but we obviously need to see the detail.

  476. Let me move away from that, if I may, to an interesting area, which is the BBC. You have argued quite strongly, I believe, that the BBC should come under the full auspices of OFCOM and not just Tiers 1 and 2. Of course the BBC have now come back with counter-arguments for the restructuring to some degree, some would say a rather cosmetic restructuring, of the Board of Governors as an argument against coming under full OFCOM control. What is your reaction to the Gavyn Davies initiative?
  (Ms Bradley) I would slightly rephrase what I think they have done, which is that, by virtue of making the changes that are now being proposed, they are accepting the logic of our argument actually, because to a great extent what they have done is create conditions within which the BBC can mirror very much what will be happening under Tier 3 for those who are regulated by OFCOM under Tier 3. By acknowledging that there is a need for them to operate rather in line with other PSB broadcasters and approach the provision of public service broadcasting in the same way, I think they are fundamentally acknowledging the logic of our arguments.

  477. What are you saying? Are you saying that because they acknowledge your arguments, they do not need to be a part of OFCOM because in fact they have managed almost to make the Governors independent of the BBC, or are you saying that, by doing what they have done, they might as well come under OFCOM?
  (Ms Bradley) I think by doing what they have done, they have acknowledged there is a possibility that they will move the whole way in future. They have made a significant shift in that direction. It is our view that we would all be best served at a future date, and the obvious date is Charter renewal, by them coming under OFCOM fully at that point.


  478. I have looked at what Mr Davies has done and the line of questioning that Mr Fabricant is pursuing. Although clearly his intentions are of the best, it strikes me that what the Chairman is doing is weird. Basically the BBC is run, is it not, by the Chairman and the Director General? What the Chairman is saying to the Board of Governors is: "You, the Board of Governors, are the people to whom the BBC is accountable and I, as Chairman, am now telling you, the Board of Governors, who should be the people in charge, how to exercise your responsibility." It appears to be a very strange way of proceeding for the Board of Governors to be told by their Chairman, who is in many ways an executive chairman, how to run the accountability of the BBC.
  (Ms Lennard) What we obviously do not know is to what extent these proposals are the proposals from the Governors as a whole and to what extent they accept the proposals or the extent to which, as you say, they may have been told what to do. We feel that in the interim period, particularly leading up to Charter renewal, that these are quite immediate issues. If there is going to be a bit of a separation which, Chairman, you described as weird, there are some key questions which the Chairman of the BBC and the Board of Governors need to address. Very briefly, and we could expand on this in more detail in a note, for example: what criteria will they be using to assess the success or failure and how will those be set; will there be external input; what action can they take if there is serious failure, because at the moment the ITC has at its disposal the possibility of sanctions. There is a bit of a difficulty perhaps with fining a public body where some of the money may come from the licence fee, but nevertheless the question needs to be addressed. Then there are the relevant broadcasting councils which, it appears, will be given a more central role in advising the Governors about performance and the role of the DCMS, which we think could be clearer in actually auditing the regulatory effectiveness of the Board of Governors in what, we hope, is an interim period.

Michael Fabricant

  479. You were speaking about sanctions and whether an appropriate sanction, given that, as you say, there is difficulty in fining something that is funded by the licence payers, would be saying to Governors that if there is going to be a sanction, they do not get automatic knighthoods or honours. It is just a thought. Under Tiers 1 and 2, which the BBC does fall under, there is a whole question of economic success. The BBC has been heralding the launch of BBC4 recently, the digital channel, and there is going to be soon BBC3 as well. Do you think that would come under Tiers 1 and 2 under the terms of the present White Paper?
  (Ms Lennard) Do you mean in respect of the economic success of the channel?

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