Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

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 Internet—which is obviously an approach we are developing now—is 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 years—many of which have taken place in here—we 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 occur—and it may occur—Parliament 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 content.

  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 Internet—which is the first step doing something around Internet content—and 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 ways—call it regulation or not—but 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 research—that is one of our major areas of responsibility here—shows 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 that?

  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 broadcasting—which is very clear, and we undertake it, for example, in the way that Stewart was describing—and 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 different.

  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 net—probably through YouTube—there 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 mainstream—it is in bedrooms, it is living rooms, it is videos and not just text—that 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 position.

  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 has happened.

  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 indeed.

  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 or not.

  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 shoulder surfing.

  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.

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