Examination of Witnesses (Questions 504-519)|
13 MAY 2008
Chairman: Good morning. Welcome to this
further session of the Committee's inquiry into the content on
the Internet and in electronic games. This morning we are focussing
on the regulators and I would like to welcome to the first part
Ed Richards, the Chief Executive of Ofcom and Steward Purvis,
the Partner for Content and Standards. Adrian Sanders is going
to ask the first question.
Q504 Mr Sanders: Evidence of direct harm
from exposure to inappropriate material on the Internet appears
to be limited. What evidence underlies your approach to regulating
access to potentially harmful or offensive content in broadcast
material or film?
Mr Richards: The reason I think
we focus on broadcasting in the way we do as opposed to the Internetwhich
is obviously an approach we are developing nowis because
broadcasting has been the established mass medium in society for
many, many years now. I think its broader impact on society has
been debated but is widely accepted. In terms of the research
and understanding of harm and issues of the impact of broadcasting,
as with the Internet that has been hotly debated over many, many
years. There is a very long established body of research about
the role broadcasting plays. There are still disputes about the
impact and the question of harm, but I think as a result of all
those debates and all that research over many yearsmany
of which have taken place in herewe have a fairly settled
view on how we want to approach broadcasting. That is clearly
in contrast with the evolving set of policy or arrangements that
we have for Internet content.
Mr Purvis: Clearly there is an
ethical problem in really detailed research in the sense that
we are not going to ask children to be put through various tests
to see what the impact of various potentially harmful content
on them is and that is inevitably a quite proper inhibition on
research. The consensus seems to be on the balance of probability
that there is a potential harm to children from exposure to certain
content and very few people have actually challenged that. One
thing I would say about broadcasting and online content is that
clearly we are the leading regulators on broadcast content; we
do not regulate online content. We have other responsibilities
in the online world in terms of the roles of the ISPs and other
services, but we do not regulate the content. You could ask where
is that heading. At the moment broadcasting has come from a background
of being a mass media; the Internet has come from being a what
is sometimes called narrow-casting. They inevitably are getting
closer together and the European directive, the AVMS Directive,
identifies the use of video online as an area where there is a
cross-over and therefore we are working with government to understand
the implications of that. The consensus has not yet been reached
nor is there any kind of conventional wisdom that the overlap
between broadcasting and online is so great now that there has
to be one regulatory regime for content in both. If that situation
did occurand it may occurParliament will almost
have a choice which in a sense toughening the regulation on the
Internet or actually loosening the regulation on broadcasting.
One should not presume that Parliament would actually want to
do that if that moment ever comes.
Q505 Mr Sanders: Do you treat broadcasting
differently from online broadcasting?
Mr Purvis: We treat it in the
sense that every day I see a list of complaints about broadcasting
because that is what we are asked by Parliament to do. I do not
see a list of complaints about content; those complaints go either
to the websites themselves or the ISPs or, in a more serious area,
they would go to people like CEOP and Internet Watch Foundation.
Our role is really media literacy which is something Parliament
asked us to do which is to try to help the public understand their
choices in these worlds rather than to specifically regulate the
Mr Richards: The answer in one
sense is that we regulate it in a profoundly different way. The
changes over the last five years, including the discussions around
the Byron recommendations and so on, show the distinction beginning
to blur. It shows the introduction of the idea of self-regulation
for the Internetwhich is the first step doing something
around Internet contentand equally a recognition that there
are different tiers of regulation even within broadcasting. There
is much tighter regulation for the public service broadcasters;
you have multiple tiers of regulation as opposed to the generality
of cable and satellite channels which enjoy a relatively freer
environment. That said, as we sit here today, there is still a
structural difference between the way we regulate licensed broadcasters
and the way we do not regulate providers of content on the Internet.
Of course the overlap which Stewart has talked about is richer
again because all the broadcasters are now offering their content
online and that is regulated because it is begun in the broadcast
regime. You have the newspapers offering a great deal of content
online and that is subject to the PCC codes. Then you have another
array of content providers who are not regulated in any way. That
I think is the description of the terrain that we are currently
in as far as regulation of media content is concerned.
Mr Purvis: We should never forget
that there are at least ten pieces of legislation which apply
across this sector so in a sense Parliament has set forth a whole
series of other wayscall it regulation or notbut
it is not as if there is a completely wild west on the Internet;
the Internet content creators are subject to the law of the land
like any other content creators.
Q506 Mr Sanders: There is a concern
that the watershed, for example, which is quite clear on broadcast
television but if you can access programmes again at any time
in a 24 hour period on the Internet then clearly the watershed
is meaningless if children are able to use BBC iPlayer or any
other play again facility.
Mr Purvis: If you look at the
BBC iPlayer it is a very good example. When you register there
it immediately asks you if you are over 16 and there is a parental
guideline or parental check which can be put in. The question
which arises is: are children as likely as parents to understand
it or more likely to know how to override it? In a sense, what
is new? Parents always had responsibilities in the old media world
but they were quite simple, physical responsibilities where you
said to children, "Go to bed, it is past nine o'clock"
or where you said, "I'm not going to take you to that film
because it is not the right certificate". Technology has
now got in the middle and has arguably disadvantaged parents of
my age group compared to parents who grew up with the Internet
in the sense that all our researchthat is one of our major
areas of responsibility hereshows that crudely parents
are half as likely to understand the Internet as their children.
That may be a generational issue which may change, but that is
the situation at the moment. Broadcasters like the BBC are aware
of that issue but of course there are sites where you can watch
programmes where there is no parental control.
Q507 Mr Sanders: If you accept that
children can now access material that in the past was easier for
parents to regulate in the sense that they would go to bed before
nine o'clock, does that change the way that you apply your regulatory
function to broadcast material?
Mr Purvis: It has not so far.
People have asked exactly what you are asking, what is the logical
position, not just to do with the Internet but even to do with
time-shift television and if you use what is called PVR to record
a programme and as a parent you record a programme after nine
o'clock if you do not put a parental lock on it your children
could come and watch it at six o'clock the next day. That is another
example of where the watershed is constantly being questioned,
but actually it goes back to my point that at the moment when
they fully converge what would you do? Would you actually say
that there is somehow a nine o'clock watershed online, which is
impractical, or would you have to review the nine o'clock watershed
on television? That is ultimately a decision for Parliament.
Mr Richards: As soon as you move
to an on-demand world these notions that we have all grown up
with are very difficult because the inherent nature of on-demand
is a world in which the idea of a watershed is absurd, it is impossible.
It very quickly brings you back to the controls around the access
to that piece of software or the controls associated with, for
example, a gaming console. Is it possible for parents to police
the access of their children to certain content by using that
software or that hardware in a particular way? I think in all
honesty that is the territory we are heading into. It is very
difficult to imagine us regulating the broadcast stream in a particular
different way unless we were to say that we are now going to stop
certain content even after nine o'clock, which is almost unimaginable.
Otherwise the content will be there and once it is there and offered
in an on-demand world you can access it whenever you want to.
Therefore I think we have to accept that the regulator's role
is slightly different in that world and the issue or concern of
the importance of parental responsibility and parental knowledge
and awareness of these issues is one of the important points that
our research that Stewart referred to draws out.
Q508 Helen Southworth: Ofcom has
responsibilities under Section 3 of the Communication Act 2003
to ensure that radio and television audiences are protected from
harmful and offensive material. Is that a key concern for you?
Is this something that you wake up in the morning and you are
going out there and do it? Are you scrupulous about enforcing
Mr Richards: Is that one of the
important duties that we have? Unequivocally. Do I wake up every
single morning worrying about that and that alone? There are a
lot of other things I worry about as well. Is it a matter of important
debate within Ofcom? Yes, it is. Do we get complaints about those
sorts of things? Yes, we do.
Mr Purvis: Part of my brain does
meet your requirement in the morning and that is because there
are almost every day issues which come out of the flow of complaints
and also what we call targeted monitoring which, if we think an
issue is arising, we will view the channels. It is worth saying
that the part of Ofcom for which I am responsible oversees 2000
television and radio outlets so it is not practical that we have
a team monitoring those 2000 outlets but we know enough about
the media scene to know where there might be problems. Frankly
you would be impressed if you were to see a team at work by their
conscientiousness and also their open-mindedness as to whether
a code should be reviewed, has something happened which means
we need a consultation period? Every time we review a code or
think of changing one we consult widely. It is very important
and it is done professionally.
Q509 Helen Southworth: In your opinion
is it really important to the public?
Mr Purvis: I think it is. To give
you a couple of examples recently, there has been quite a lot
of debate about what is an acceptable level of violence in Eastenders.
We came up with an adjudication from one of our panels that basically
said that a fight in Eastenders went beyond what should
be appropriate before the watershed. You may have seen that the
BBC itself put out a statement in the last few days about a sequence
on Eastenders where somebody was buried alive. These are
issues which really connect with viewers.
Q510 Helen Southworth: It is certainly
my understanding from my constituents' perspective that that is
what they expect, but I was really confused by some of the answers
we were getting before because I did not get that sense at all
about the Internet. Is this issue more that it is not your responsibility
and it is going to be very difficult?
Mr Richards: The Internet is not
our responsibility. I think we were trying to draw a distinction
in the earlier questions between what we are responsible for in
broadcastingwhich is very clear, and we undertake it, for
example, in the way that Stewart was describingand the
Internet in which we simply do not have those responsibilities.
Q511 Helen Southworth: Part of what
we need is the specialist experience of people who are working
in these fields with people with media to know how these things
can be applied to the Internet. If the sense we get is either
that this is too difficult or this is not properly the responsibility
of anybody other than the individual then that is perhaps very
Mr Purvis: I can reassure you
on that front. Although it is not part of our direct responsibilities
our route into this is via media literacy, it is about increasing
people's understanding of their choices as citizens and consumers
to express their concerns. That is why we submitted a large body
of evidence to the Byron review and Dr Byron incorporated some
of our suggestions in her plan, if you like. The key to this really
is to bring the stakeholders together in the UK Council as is
suggested by Dr Byron. What is our role in that? Two roles have
been suggested, one is of research because I think we would claim
to have a large body of research on this. Secondly as an audit
function: can we in some way advise the various stakeholders?
There is a third possible which is: could we help in some coordination
of codes? There is already an informal coordination of codes between
regulators (you will hear later on from some of them). It is not
as if we are in any sort of territorial battle, we actually get
on rather well, and as a result for instance the Broadband Stakeholder
Group coordinated a series of discussions about the code and we
had an input into that; our colleagues at the Press Complaints
Commission who have the self-regulatory responsibility for video
on newspapers' websites, we talk to them about the judgements
that are made. There is a connection. The question is really what
is going to flow from the UK Council? Are we going to see the
kind of progress that Dr Byron envisages? I think we would hope
so. Or is it just going to become a talking shop and we may have
some small advisory role? We would welcome that.
Mr Richards: Do we think this
is an issue in terms of Internet content? Absolutely. Have we
made that clear through our evidence? Yes, I think we have. Do
we think that the right next step is effective self-regulation?
I think we do on balance; that is the right way forward. Is it
absolutely critical that during the next 12 months we see real
progress and we see effective self-regulation emerge? Absolutely.
Otherwise I think there will then be a whole new set of questions
emerge about what is the appropriate way of doing it. Are we in
a position and ready to help with that self-regulation to make
sure it is effective through the expertise we have in broadcasting,
through the expertise we have in understanding harm and offence,
through the development of the voluntary code and through our
research? Absolutely, and we are ready to do that as the Council
would have us do. We think this is a very big issue and we have
a lot of expertise to help. The path that has been recommended
is a self-regulatory one. We need to see if that works and we
hope that it does work as a first step.
Q512 Chairman: To a young person
accessing video content either on television or through the netprobably
through YouTubethere is not a great deal of difference;
they regard both as pretty much a normal activity. However, you
are describing a world where the video content which happens to
be broadcast on television is subject to considerable regulation
with you debating whether or not a violent sequence in Eastenders
went too far at 7.30 in the evening, yet on YouTube there is no
control whatsoever. When we talked to Google we discovered that
a scene of a gang rape was allowed to go through because some
people did not think it was too objectionable. That decision was
overruled eventually when somebody else came to look at it. Is
it not curious that for a young person there is not a great deal
of difference in the content and yet one is subject to great regulation
and the other appears not to be regulated at all?
Mr Richards: I think for a young
person it probably is curious and I think that is why the current
set of arrangements cannot persist. I do not think they can persist.
That is why I made the remarks about the importance of the self-regulatory
proposals over the next 12 to 24 months. It is very important
in our minds that they are effective. Take the scene that you
describe, what are the weaknesses we see at the moment? The weaknesses
we see at the moment are of precisely that form. In issues of
that kind or content of that kind, we are not clear what the take
down procedures are, we are not clear what the complaints procedures
are, they are not transparent and therefore we do not have anything
even approaching an effective self-regulatory model for this.
In our view we have to do that quickly over the next 12 months
to ensure that that Internet world which the child that you are
describing occupies comes closer to the broadcast world which
we are more familiar with where we make judgments about harm and
offence on a regular consistent basis. I think it is very, very
important that that does take place. The test for us will be how
much progress is made over the next 12 months? Does industry step
up to the plate or not? Can we examine in 12 or 18 months' time
effectively whether that has taken place? In our view if that
has not taken place for precisely the reasons you say then you
will have this huge disjuncture between the two regimes and I
think some very serious questions will have to be asked.
Q513 Chairman: Would that potentially
involve Parliament and legislation?
Mr Richards: If you take the two
extremes of the broadcast world being regulated in a way which
actually has widespread consensus and support across our society
(people have different views about different instances but the
general approach has widespread support) to a world where Internet
video is becoming much more mainstreamit is in bedrooms,
it is living rooms, it is videos and not just textthat
onward march continues and if we imagine that onward march continues
but the regulatory approach or the systems and procedures around
complaints, around take down, around harm and offence stay where
they are today, then one might say that is likely to be an untenable
Mr Purvis: A traditional difference
between broadcasting and online, if you look at a lot of the early
regulation around broadcasting it was because it was coming into
people's homes, a mass audience but into people's homes. The first
generation of computers was seen almost as office equipment and
they have gradually become more and more a domestic appliance;
now there are screens which combine the broadcast signal and,
if you like, an online signal so they have absolutely come into
the homes. This is another reason why it seems to us that self-regulation
really has to mean self-regulation and not in a sense an excuse
for lack of action.
Q514 Helen Southworth: You are focussing
on self-regulation there but you have also talked in terms of
seeing action within the next 12 months seeing some significant
progress, seeing real change. If you are going to be able to measure
that to see if it is has actually happened you are going to have
to have some indicators in your own head as to what is acceptable
progress. For example, what would you expect to see in terms of
take down time for a serious complaint?
Mr Richards: That is something
we would want to discuss with industry. We would want to hear
the views that people on the Council would articulate about that.
I would be nervous about giving you a specific time but I think
the first thing we need to have without any doubt is transparency
about what the take down procedures are; I do not think we have
that. The second thing we would need to have is a well-understood
code and credible timeframe for take down, particularly once notification
Mr Purvis: I would re-enforce
Ed's nervousness. The Council has not even started yet. There
were a lot of discussions within the Byron review about how the
Council will be structured
Q515 Helen Southworth: Can I just
interrupt you there? Can I just ask for your personal opinions
then? If there was a video of the type the Chairman was describing
there, how fast would you expect that to be taken down? Would
you want to have a discussion with the Council about it or would
you want it off?
Mr Richards: I would want it taken
down very promptly and you would expect any responsible company
to take it down very promptly. I think the concern that a lot
of parents have in this area at the moment is because in the absence
of transparency and in the absence of fact there is a sense that
sometimes material of that kind is not taken down promptly. A
similar concern exists on the copyright front. This is a serious
set of questions but the direct answer to your question is that
you would expect something like that to be taken down very promptly
Q516 Mr Evans: Ed, should you just
be standing on the top of Ofcom headquarters shouting to the Government,
"Give us the powers"?
Mr Richards: No.
Q517 Mr Evans: You want to wait 12
months whilst more damaging material gets distributed on the Internet
and then you will see how self-regulation does not work and then
eventually you will get the powers. It is absurd. You have just
admitted that the nine o'clock watershed is dead; you have to
have it on broadcasting but effectively it is dead. Anybody who
wants to watch anything after nine o'clock at four o'clock in
the afternoon can watch a lot of it now on their Internet. Then
you say that it is a bit difficult to do anything with the Internet
because it is a global thing, it is very complicated and you have
no power over that. It sounds as if you are surrendering.
Mr Richards: Definitely not. We
are definitely not surrendering; it is not a word in my vocabulary.
It is important to remember that the watershed is not dead. Despite
the huge rise in the use of the Internet people in this country
are still watching pretty much as much television as they have
always watched, I think it is about 24 hours on average a week.
People are using other time to access the Internet. Television
is and remains remarkably resilient as a medium and still hugely
important. The watershed in television terms is still very important
and I think will remain so for some years. We have a new challenge
though which is the on-demand world and the online world and we
have to meet that challenge. Are we surrendering? Do we or should
we be calling for extra powers? I do not think that is the right
response yet. It may be in due course; it does not feel the right
response at the moment. The reason for this is that our instinct
has always been and remains to regulate in the least intrusive,
least bureaucratic way possible. In this instance there is a real
opportunity for self regulation to be effective so we should not
start by assuming we should put statutory powers in place, we
should not start by giving us a great heavy set of powers. It
may be necessary in due course but let us see if we can do it
in a less intrusive and less bureaucratic way first. Why might
that be possible? It might be possible because I think the mood
on this issue has changed; I hope it has changed. What do I mean
by that? I mean that I think there is now widespread public concern;
there is concern that this Committee has expressed; there is concern
that Dr Byron has expressed and many others. What that means is
that significant companies who are responsible for a very substantial
proportion of where young people are going online will recognise
the responsibility they have and recognise that it is in their
interests to do something effective in this area and to work together
with the National Council to ensure that there is effective self-regulation.
I am optimistic that it can work and that self-regulation is the
first correct step. As ever with these things you keep an open
mind and a watching brief to see whether that is an accurate forecast
Q518 Mr Evans: Would you be happy
with a ten-year-old watching Shameless?
Mr Richards: Parents have to make
their own judgment on this. Shameless is on after the watershed;
the episodes of Shameless vary. I think ultimately those
decisions are matters for parents, to be honest. The issue for
us is: is Shameless in the right place in the schedule?
If it is after the watershed, is it reasonable dramatic material?
I think it is; I think it is very, very good. Is it signalled
to parents that they know what to expect after that time? I think
it is, it is well known.
Q519 Mr Evans: You know very well
that when youngsters go into their bedrooms and they have access
to the Internet, they would be able to download all sorts of material
including Channel 4's productions, therefore the parents are not
Mr Richards: Shameless
takes us right back to the example of the iPlayer that Stewart
used. So long as a parent has ensured that the age above 16 or
not has been expressed as a preference then Shameless download
should be limited or controlled by that.