Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180
MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY 2002
NIGEL R. SMITH
180. The BBC said in its evidence that there
was no technical reason why we could not have a programme like
that. Obviously, there may be other reasons why we are not getting
them. How do you see ITV reacting to that? One of the concerns
many of us have about the forthcoming Broadcasting Bill is that
there may be an extension of the likes of Granada, to take over
one ITV network along the lines of ITV 2. But ITV also indicated
that to change this present structure, we would need a change
in primary legislation. Have you any comments on that?
(Mr Hutchison) This is because of the Broadcasting
Act's requirement to offer a national news service. There are
two points that are quite interesting. Ten years ago, I can remember
on the BBC's General Advisory Council that there was some discussion
about ITV moving in this direction. When I read the evidence of
the people from the BBC, I must admit that I smiled when I saw
one of the BBC people saying, "it is now almost technically
possible to do this." They have been saying this for a very
long time. I believe that it has been technically possible for
some considerable time.
181. I think they accepted that.
(Mr Hutchison) Yes, they did. They could have done
it several years ago. I would have thought that it would be desirable
for the major ITV companies - the two major ITV companiesto
think hard about how they package news in different parts of Britain.
There was a very interesting remark made by the last American
ambassador, Mr Clinton's ambassador, when leaving Britain; he
talked about us moving to asymmetrical federalism. I think there
is some truth in that. I do not think the process is over. This
is more of a constitutional matter, but broadcasting has got to
find a way of adapting to asymmetrical federalism rather better
than it has managed.
(Mr Smith) One of my interests in pursuing the BBC
on this is because I think it would provoke a response from the
other broadcaster, and I also think it would provoke a response
from the newspapers in Scotland in their own way, by changing
the media quality, as it were. It has always been recognised that
the Act would have to be changed, but it has never been regarded
as any sort of problem; it is just a fact of life. It could be
done; the technical means is available to ITN, as it is to the
BBC. It is a question of will and competition.
(Professor Schlesinger) I agree that if things change
in the BBC, the change would also be forced upon ITV. I think
this means that the regional provisions that are policed by OFCOM,
following on from the ITC, become absolutely crucial. Guarantees,
or at least indications, have been given that these are not going
to be weakened. It is essential that they are not because the
way in which broadcasting speaks to various parts of the UK community,
in the nations and regions, is of growing importance rather than
of diminishing importance. Running across that is the increasing
tendency towards concentrations of ownership in ITV, and it is
going to take some serious determination to ensure that that carries
182. The evidence we had from Scottish Media
Group on the very subject of ITN and an opt-out or something being
produced specifically for Scotland by ITN, was that it could completely
be ruled out on commercial grounds. They said it could not possibly
be made to pay. Do you want to see a constraint placed on Scottish
Media Group so that they would have to accept something that was
(Mr Smith) As a businessman, I am quite happy to leave
it to the market because I know that they will have to judge a
response and will draw an audience. Their problem at the moment
is that they are losing audience share. I do not feel any sort
of compulsion on that score, and I would leave it to the market
in this case.
(Mr Hutchison) I think it is very difficult to leave
it to the market because the right to broadcast is not given to
everybody. There is a limited amount of space in the airwaves
even in the digital world. If you do have this right, which STV
did not pay an awful lot for the last time it actually put in
a sealed bid£2,000 a yearthey were fortunate
on that occasion, but matters are changing of courseI would
have thought that the idea that a public service broadcasterand
ITV companies are very fond of describing themselves as public
service broadcastersshould be able to argue that the nature
of provision of news and current affairs should be entirely dependent
on the market, rather than perhaps part of the overall package,
which obviously has to be market successful. I think that is rather
a strange position.
(Professor Schlesinger) I would like to add to that.
If it is left purely to the market, to what extent would commercial
broadcasting be regulated in the public interest? It seems to
me that that would be an abandonment of any principle there.
183. Mr Smith, you have said that perhaps the
most revealing action comes from English people newly posted to
Scotland. Within a few months, they will robustly criticise the
coverage of Scotland by BBC London News. What research on the
attitudes towards brand new broadcasting in Scotland by people
recently moved to Scotland has been undertaken? My second question
is this. You said that all the evidence suggests the audience
would respond to it. To which survey do you comment on audience
(Mr Smith) The BBC does its own corporate surveys,
which repeatedly show that as you move away from London the BBC
is less popular with its audienceso this is not just a
Scottish thing; it is a north of England thing, and so on. If
you compare that with ITN, you do not see that. In other words,
the local audiences are pretty committed and on an equal regional
basis. Another survey by the Scottish Consumer Council, along
with the National Consumer Council, found exactly the same evidence.
Both of these are about three years out of date, I would say,
but both picked up this reaction from the audience. To be honest,
the BBC itself has never denied it and went into the last Charter
review describing itself as "the London Broadcasting Corporation".
I do not think we would regard this as a matter of dispute. The
evidence shows that the audience discerned it.
184. You said that the objections that Scotland
does not have the skill or enough news to make an hour-long programme
can be met. Is there any suggestion that Scotland suffers from
a shortage of news or broadcasting skills?
(Mr Smith) No, there is not. We have a healthy export
business in journalists and television journalists, as you know.
The point I am trying to make here is that once the BBC decides
that it wants to do an integrated news edited in Scotland, then
the BBC, to protect its brand name, will prepare, train and provide
the resource in Scotland, to make sure that is done in a way that
is consistent with its brand image. I have absolutely no doubt
that we have the journalists in Scotland to do that. The only
problem they have, as Mr Hutchison says, is that they have been
operating in many cases with their hands tied behind their backs,
and with a deliberately restricted agenda. This could obviously
185. Would you expand a little on Mr Mohammed
Sarwar's first point? Your memorandum states that the most revealing
reaction comes from English people newly posted to Scotland.
(Mr Smith) This is just one of these little anecdotes
that one likes to put in, but during the devolution campaign I
met so many people around Scotlandand surprisingly there
were a lot of English people involved in the campaign in one way
or another. Obviously, we met all sorts of people. That was their
reaction, and one cannot say more than that; that they noticed
the difference from living in Hertfordshire to coming to Scotland.
I suspect they would have noticed a difference if they had gone
to live in Hexham because a lot of the surveys show the same problems
in the north of England.
186. Gentlemen, you have all alluded to the
size of the press and media lobby at Holyrood. Is there any sense
that the working arrangements at the Scottish Parliament and the
number of journalists presently located there have created an
over-large media microscope which, in pursuit of a story, might
tend to magnify devolved issues at the expense of the wider picture,
particularly European and international issues which are part
of Scottish affairs?
(Professor Schlesinger) I am not quite sure how to
answer that question because I think that the Scottish media core
that has grown up around Holyrood has been there principally to
report on Holyrood, and that is its aim; it is not orientated
towards the Westminster or European Parliaments. If it gives honest
exclusive attention to Holyrood, that is not surprisingit
is a relatively large group of people. The last time I looked
into this, there were about 200 accreditations, a lot of which
were technical staff, but nonetheless there seemed to be around
40 to 50 regular political correspondents, which is a large number,
for example, compared to Westminster. The accreditation of active
correspondents is something like 80 to 100 at Westminster. It
is a very competitive environment, and there is no doubt that
stories do get played up and sought after quite fiercely, and
that has its effects in the press and in broadcasting.
(Mr Hutchison) It is certainly the case that there
is a debate going on in some parts of the Scottish media about
the relative importance of Westminster and Holyrood. There is
a view in some quarters that too much attention has been given
to Holyrood, and these numbers may suggest that that is the case,
because people have to file copy and it is quite difficult to
see sometimes where the copy is going to come from. I would be
surprised if over the years there was not some kind of adjustment.
You could argue that one of the attractions of covering Holyrood
is its relative ease for the Scottish journalists; you can go
home at night on the train, if it is functioning. The criticism
that one has always made over the years of Scottish newspapers,
particularly the broadsheets, is the lack of coverage beyond Scotland.
This pre-dates devolution when we have been looking at Scottish
broadsheets and asking how many foreign correspondents they had.
I think that the lack of coverage of affairs beyond Britain remains
the weakest area in Scottish journalism, particularly during the
week, but not so much on Sunday. We are often told that there
is a Scottish perspective of the world. Canadians use the same
argument, that their perspective of the world is different from
the American perspective. Like Scottish newspapers, Canadian newspapers
do not spend much money sending people abroad. Perhaps some of
those that are devoted to Holyrood could be re-directed.
187. Can you give an example of that? How would
a story be covered, for example the recent African volcano?
(Mr Hutchison) I was not actually saying I believe
this. I was saying that they often argue that there is a Scottish
perspective in the world. It seems to me that if you are going
to argue that, you have to back it up by spending money on journalism.
I think you can argue, for example, that stories connected with
the fishing resource issue resonate more strongly in Scotland
than they do in certain parts of England. I am not convinced about
this distinctive Scottishness, to be absolutely honest with you.
I would argue that since most people in Scotland buy newspapers
that are produced in Scotland, although the figure has been going
down in recent years compared to ten or fifteen years ago, something
like 60-63 per cent of the papers bought this morning were Scottish-produced,
whereas it was 70 per cent ten or fifteen years ago. Since most
people in Scotland get their news from Scottish-based newspapers
and that the foreign coverage tends to be the weakest aspect of
that coveragealthough it has been better over the last
few yearsmy argument would be that we should spend a bit
more money on that.
188. Is there any evidence that particular types
of European stories would have a different aspect in Scotland,
perhaps the obsession with the euro that we see in other parts
of the UK? Fishing is a perfect example and farming is another
example of where the impact of Europe is seen differently in Scotland
than perhaps the south of England.
(Professor Schlesinger) I do not know of any evidence
that there is a major difference in perspective in the media on
European matters. The only area that I could discern would be
at times of greater interest in what is going on in other small
countries, perhaps in regional affairs, which does find its way
in from time to time. I do not discern any fundamental difference
which would lead you to suppose that there is a divergent foreign
policy perspective emerging in Scotland.
189. That is not the point I was making. Interest
in European affairs by the Scottish public may be different because
of the structure of the Scottish economy and society.
(Mr Hutchison) I think there is some evidence of that.
There are opinion polls telling us, for example, that the Scots
are not as hostile to the euro as people elsewhere in Britain.
Historically, one can think of major crises where the Scottish
attitude was slightly different for example during the Falklands
war there was a lot of polling evidence that suggested there was
more enthusiasm south of the border, whereas in Scotland people
felt we just had to get on with it. There are these differences.
As to whether one could construct some kind of Scottish perspective
in Europe, I think that would be a difficult thing to measure.
Again, we would be into finding the evidential base. My hunch
would be that Scotland is much more relaxed about Europe because
it does not look at Europe in quite the same way as England does.
For all that we were up to our ears in the British Empire, I do
not think the residue of Empire has quite the same place in the
Scottish psyche as it has south of the border, and I think that
does affect the way we look at Europe, and indeed the wider world.
190. We have looked at the challenges and the
problems of broadcasting post devolution. Can you project forward
into the effect of the digital age on broadcasting? What additional
problems do you see it creating, or what solutions do you think
it might present in the manner in which news and current affairs
are presented in Scotland?
(Professor Schlesinger) We are urged to think that
the digital age is on us, but the evidence is not absolutely conclusive
on that. I think we are being ushered towards it, perhaps somewhat
reluctantly. One obvious possible consequence of the further fragmentation
of the broadcasting market and small audiences for more channelswe
do not know if that is really going to happen but it is a possibilityis
that the economic basis for producing high quality journalism
across a wider range of channels would be weaker. That is one
thing that one would have to consider. One way round that, I guess,
would be to syndicate material across channels, just as radio,
for example, buys in IRN's material. You could get that kind of
arrangement reproduced across more channels. It is clearly not
going to be the case that more channels produce more and better
journalism. We do not really know how audiences will react to
increased choice, or increased availability. It is a reasonable
assumption that you might get some erosion of the present overwhelming
tendency to watch the main channels, but it may not be absolutely
undermined. The answer is it would be a guess, but you would need
to think quite carefully, if you want to talk to a national audience,
how provision could be made available right across a range of
channels. That implies some kind of regulatory regime if news
and current affairs are to be thought of as a crucial part of
(Mr Hutchison) I agree with what Professor Schlesinger
said about the dangers of fragmentation. The danger is not just
to news and current affairs; what the people watch most, if you
look at the ratings, is drama and the soaps - Touch of Frost,
Heartbeat. That is what people want to watch. Half a million
pounds an hour, on average, is what it costs, and you cannot provide
that in digital channels watched by a handful of people. I do
think that the British Government runs a risk of being pushed
into a switch-off in a digital world which actually produces rather
less good broadcasting than we now have. Another danger is about
social cohesion. We live in an age where the agencies of social
cohesion, whether political parties, churches or trades unions,
are not as powerful as they once were. Broadcasting is an agency
of social cohesion, and if you undermine the major public service
channels, then we run quite serious risks, which we ought to think
long and hard about. I am not persuaded that we are going to have
95 per cent of the population digitalised by 2010, unless the
Government will provide, free of charge, digital conversions not
only for one television set but perhaps for two or three. The
economics of that are, to say the least, doubtful.
(Mr Smith) This is one area where the BBC has chosen
to move ahead of public opinion. It has been top-slicing their
budget for the last five years, and now 10 per cent of broadcasts
monies are going into digital. The share of audience is under
1 per cent, and Gerald Kaufman has described this as an absolute
gross waste of the licence fee. Whether that is fair or not, it
does show that the BBC has taken a position on digital which has
yet to be borne out by a response from the audience. It has provided
technical advantages, and one of them will help integrated news.
By handling virtually everything digitally, it has made it easier
to produce integrated news, so in that sense I welcome it.
191. Gentlemen, we have not so much run out
of questions but of time. If there is nothing else you wish to
say, I thank you sincerely for coming along this morning and giving
your evidence to the Committee. I can assure you that it will
be very helpful to us in making our report.