Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520-539)


13 MAY 2008

  Q520  Mr Evans: How many parents do you think do that?

  Mr Purvis: Whose responsibility is that at the end of the day? We cannot shirk responsibility as parents; we have not shirked it over sending them to bed at nine o'clock so why somehow should it be thought acceptable for parents to shirk the responsibilities in an online area? Maybe we do not understand it as well as some of the children, but that is not a good reason either if you think about it, is it?

  Mr Richards: We are not exercising a judgment about whether any individual ten-year-old is or is not watching Shameless and we cannot; we have never been able to and we never will be able to.

  Q521  Mr Evans: Part of your responsibility under the Communications Act 2003 is to make the most of services on the Internet and to learn how to manage the risks to which they are exposed when online. That is for consumers. Tell us then, how much money did you spend last year on telling parents how they were able to control what their kids could be watching on the Internet?

  Mr Richards: This is our media literacy role.

  Q522  Mr Evans: You know the kids are more intelligent about computers than their parents so I assume you are spending significant sums of money on educating parents on how they can control the risks for their youngsters online.

  Mr Richards: We have a duty to promote media literacy along with the BBC, not a duty to deliver it. We do absolutely everything we can. As a matter of fact, we are given half a million pounds by the Department for media literacy. This year we have doubled that in order to spend more because we think it is a significant priority; we are spending more than double what we receive in grant in aid because the Board recognise this as an important priority. We have established a number of partnerships and activities with other organisations.

  Mr Purvis: We prompted the idea that there should be a BSI kite mark for Internet software filtering, something that had not happened before. Together in partnership with, for instance, the Home Office, we were able to help bring this about. That did not cost us a lot of money but there was a lot of initiative and a lot of enterprise behind that and it was welcomed by the partners. When the launch of that kite mark happens relatively soon and there are products that people can buy, that will be good use of public money to help promote an understanding by parents of how they can actually install something that makes a difference to their own children's consumption of media. We are not funded by government to run a poster campaign for, if you like, the kite mark or for the Internet filters, but we can be an enabler that actually promotes a process and helps a process go along in which stakeholders around the Council table, for instance, can actually take positive steps. Have we spent a lot of money on doing something to make a practical effect? No. Will it have a practical effect? Yes.

  Mr Richards: We are definitely not the right body to deliver a mass campaign for promoting media literacy across the UK. That is not what we do. Even if you gave us the money for it I would say that we are the wrong organisation to do it. We are not equipped to do it; we do not have the skills to do it; we do not have the reach to do it. I think somebody probably does need to do that but I do not think it is a regulator like Ofcom. The duty to promote it and use our position at the apex of the communications industry is a sensible thing, but delivering that sort of mass campaign to bring parents' understanding and literacy of these issues up such that they can meet their responsibilities effectively, that is not an appropriate role for us.

  Q523  Mr Evans: I remember when John and I were on one of the broadcasting bills and Gwyneth Dunwoody was the formidable chairman of that. I mentioned the Internet several times in one of my speeches and she said, "Sit down. I do not want to hear the mention of the Internet again; this is about broadcasting." You know where I am coming to: convergence is already there. It is not just YouTube, there are a number of other sites that are up there which have near broadcast quality pictures. You have put yourselves in an impossible and an absurd position. I do not understand why you are not allowed to control what is basically broadcasting on the Internet.

  Mr Richards: We have not put ourselves in any position; Parliament put us in the position we are in. It was Parliament that debated whether Ofcom should have a role in the Internet or not and it was Parliament that decided that we should not. If you go back to when that legislation was passed the mood at the time was that the Internet was an extraordinary new phenomenon with amazing innovations taking place and the consensus of opinion was that the last thing that should be done was that it should be regulated by anybody. "Let a thousand flowers bloom" was the zeitgeist of the day. The debate we are having now is because the world has moved on and rather than being a new phenomenon that no-one really understood and was purely about innovation, it is much more mainstream so it is bringing with it mainstream concerns. That is why we are having the discussion we are having. You should be very clear that we did not put ourselves in any position in relation to this at all. We are absolutely duty bound to carry out what we are asked to do by Parliament and we were not asked to do anything in relation to the Internet content. We obviously do regulate the networks that carry the Internet and do so quite extensively.

  Q524  Mr Evans: You are just waiting for the tipping point. Warp speeds are going to be with us very shortly and increasingly people are going to be watching their entertainment via a tube.

  Mr Purvis: We should again mention this European directive which comes into effect at the end of next year by which what are called TV-like services on the Internet fall under a broadcasting regime. Even if Parliament did not ask us in 2003 to look at this, the European Parliament is aware of this issue and the situation may change. We are doing the job that we are asked to do; we are doing it with not a lot of money and I would say that we are doing it rather effectively.

  Q525  Mr Hall: What are the implications for you with the EU directive on Audio Visual Media Services? Will we end up having three systems or just one?

  Mr Richards: The main implication is that it brings into the formal regulatory orbit what are described as TV-like services, in other words content on the Internet which passes the definition in legislation of what a TV-like service is. For the first time ever that will bring those services into a gentle formal regulatory orbit. The expectation is that that will be addressed through co-regulation, that is a form of self-regulation but which is backed with statutory powers. That is, I think, the single most important change.

  Mr Purvis: I think that sums it up. Obviously there are going to be consultations ahead on what exactly is a TV-like service; let us not hide from that rather important issue. However, it does signal a change in the attitude of legislators towards this issue and it will be very interesting to see how it develops. Obviously it has wider implications as some of the case law that comes out of that unveils.

  Q526  Mr Hall: Can you explain this concept of co-regulation which is self-regulation and statutory regulation at the same time? That sounds like an oxymoron to me.

  Mr Richards: It may well be an oxymoron but the way I think about it is that there is a continuum really and there are three big points on that continuum. There is statutory regulation which is what we do for broadcast; there is self-regulation at the other end which is essentially voluntarist so industry agrees voluntarily to create a regulatory code; co-regulation is the point in between the two where there is a statutory basis for the regulation but the approach taken is one of co-regulation, regulating with the industry so the bulk of the work, but the drawing up of the codes possibly with advice from ourselves will be undertaken by an industry based body. So it is somewhere between the two.

  Mr Purvis: It is worth adding that sometimes the co-regulatory bodies are actually areas where we, for instance, had a statutory responsibility and we have decided that it is best done in a co-regulatory way by creating some new body. In that sort of situation the default power falls back to the statutory regulator but in all these models it seems to me the default power falls back to Parliament. If Parliament does not think that any of these regimes are working it has options.

  Q527  Mr Hall: We do have to have some clear direction. We might have a dual system, we might have three systems operating. When you have plurality you have a real problem actually enforcing whatever it is you want to do.

  Mr Purvis: When I took up this job—I have only been here about five months—I was asked to write an article and I worked out that there were at least ten content regulators in the UK and I ended by saying, "Is that a problem or is it a solution?" The answer is that you could argue it either way. You could argue that the devolved responsibility to co- and self-regulators is part of a wider regulatory framework which we are in favour of, or you could argue that there are too many people disagreeing about things. I think I have reassured you that there no fundamental disagreements about the codes between these various bodies. The issue we have at the back of our minds at all times is public awareness: do the public actually know where to go to complain? Do they know about these ten different organisations, one for mobile, one for video, on-demand et cetera? That is where media literacy comes in to play as well. We are not just interested in the regulatory talk; we are really concerned about the public's awareness and of its rights to complain to the right body.

  Q528  Mr Hall: On that particular issue, have you had any complaints about the Darren Brown Trick or Treat programme on Channel 4 on Friday night where there was the potential of a rabbit going to be electrocuted live on television?

  Mr Purvis: I am told that there was a psychologist or an animal psychologist on standby, but there is an answer to that point.

  Q529  Mr Hall: I have had a number of letters already about it.

  Mr Richards: If you pass them on to us we will treat them as complaints and take it forward.

  Q530  Adam Price: It is not just content that is potentially harmful but also the advertising or the marketing material that is bundled in with that content. Is there any evidence that some of the advertisers that have been shut out of the broadcast world have migrated to online platforms in targeting children? Is that true? Should we be worried about it? What potentially could be done about it?

  Mr Richards: The kind of advertisers who might have targeted children in the past on broadcasting sites have been shut out of that for a long time so it would probably be difficult to identify whether they moved, but that does not undermine the general point that you are making which is: is there an issue that is emerging about appropriate targeting of advertising? I think the answer to that must be that there is an issue and there is a concern. It is absolutely one of those things that in the question about whether self-regulation is going to be effective or not it has to be on the list.

  Mr Purvis: I think one of our five "must be reviewed by the Council" suggestions to the Council was what we call a code of practice for online advertising. That is the prominence we give it. As I understand it retail websites fall outside the definition of advertising in the sense that in-store displays are not actually counted as advertising, so there are issues around that as well. As far as I am aware there is no suggestion that that has been abused by retailers, but it is certainly a window via which some retailers could produce harmful content, somehow bypassing these codes of practice. It is an area which needs consideration.

  Mr Richards: I think it is a very serious issue and it takes us right back to the big question of how will the companies involve respond to this. It is clearly something that society would rightly be concerned about but it also seems to me something that could lend itself to effective self-regulation. Will it be? We will have to wait and see.

  Q531  Adam Price: In our next session we are going to concentrate on video games. Which of the spectrum of different models of regulation that you outlined in an earlier response do you think should be applied to the video games sector?

  Mr Richards: We have not studied the video games sector; it is slightly outwith our remit really. I think our instinct on this would probably be close to the response Stewart gave a few minutes ago which is that what matters here is transparency and clarity for parents. If the issue here is concern about some very violent games or unsuitable games being available and accessed in an unsupervised or unclear way by young children, the test is: do people know what the ratings are? Do they trust those ratings? Do they understand where they can identify them and see them? That, for example, is where we are with the watershed; it is well-known and well-understood, everybody is clear and that in a sense is the test of this issue.

  Q532  Adam Price: Your instinct would be that effective self-regulation—which is the phrase that you use—should be able to produce that kind of transparency.

  Mr Richards: We honestly have not looked at it, but you would start there and if you have good reasons not to believe that then you would move a step up.

  Mr Purvis: I think basically you should never underestimate the power of transparency. It is a phrase that is used a lot but people have to answer direct questions about their systems and their methods and about such things as how long does it take to take things down. Before I took up this job I was at a conference where I asked a social network site how many content monitors they had per million users and frankly the number was not very high. Transparency on resource issues like that I think would really open up some important issues which the Council could then follow through on.

  Q533  Alan Keen: I have not heard about the rabbit being electrocuted but some people might be offended by rabbits being eaten on television, not alive of course. What it does to show is that, as you have said already, it is up to parents to make the decisions. You have already said that it should not be your responsibility. It is an enormous role to have, but how should it be done? It is pretty obvious from some of the facts we have been given that the majority of parents do not understand the Internet, full stop. I agree with you, whose role should it be and what are you doing to pass it on to someone else?

  Mr Richards: What we have done is work very extensively, provided a lot of research and evidence to the Byron review. We saw that as an opportunity to express our concerns in this area. We did that. I think the answer to your question is that the Byron review is in the right territory, it is a big self-regulation opportunity and challenge and the National Council needs to meet that. There is a big educational question and DCSF and the Government need to meet that opportunity. There is a big outstanding challenge for framing an overall media literacy strategy which is more focussed upon adults, so not schools but more focussed on parents and parental knowledge and, as we said earlier, we do the best job we can of our duty to promote and put extra resources into it, but delivering something like that is an outstanding question. Who is going to deliver that? How can it be effective? It is a very major challenge because you are grappling with what is a profound generational difference in an instinctive understanding of this new technology.

  Q534  Alan Keen: What would you like us to say in our report?

  Mr Richards: If I were writing your report I would put in place tough tests on the National Council and on industry to demonstrate early effectiveness of self-regulation. I would invite us to assess the effectiveness because I think we are well placed to do that in 12 to 18 months' time. Has it made a difference? Do they meet basic standards? I would place a real challenge to government in relation to the educational and younger people's side of things. I would place a challenge to government in relation to the framing and delivery of a comprehensive media literacy strategy.

  Q535  Alan Keen: It is clear from the inquiry so far that this is the greatest gap. Your answer earlier was that you could not give the answer yourself—and rightly so—about a decision. The vast majority of parents just do not know how to do it; the kids are miles ahead of them and will stay there.

  Mr Purvis: We do not know the exact knowledge of parents in general but what we believe is that part of the media literacy strategy is not just helping people understand but help them find out where they can get help. That is one of Dr Byron's recommendations about a one-stop shop. As somebody who, last week, was trying to install Internet filtering software, it was not actually very simple to find out where exactly I could get some help on that issue. I think that is a major outcome that the UK Council could clarify but it has to be part of a wider strategy. There are specific things that could be done to help parents and support parents rather than just chastise parents which arguably I did earlier. In the case of iPlayer which is now part of the mainstream consumption of media in just a few weeks, it is not that complicated to do it. It actually asks you a question. The question behind that is are children more likely than parents to know how to bypass it? For every simple solution there is going to be a complication factor and we just need to understand that, but that is not a reason why we should not do the simple things.

  Mr Richards: I am glad Stewart added the point about the single point of contact and information. I would underline that. The self-regulation strategy, school strategy, media literacy, these are all important but it will be crucial that the typical parent knows and there is a widespread understanding of where they can go quickly and easily to get simple, straightforward advice on how to do some of these things. Some of it is relatively simple as soon as you know how to do it. It is like basic bits of DIY, it seems horrendous at the time but actually if you just follow the instructions you can do it. That will be a crucial outcome over the coming months and years.

  Alan Keen: I think it actually needs one person or a team of people to make the recommendations and to start to educate parents.

  Q536  Chairman: Before you go, can I just raise one other matter with you? Since you came to talk to us at the session we had on your Annual Report you have announced a fine on ITV for abuses of PRS. Do you see that as the end of the matter or do you think, particularly given that nobody appears to have lost their job let alone be required to face a consequence, there may be a further role for investigation by the police?

  Mr Richards: It certainly is not the end of the matter in the sense that we have further outstanding cases. I think ITV themselves took the decision to put into the public domain one particular case which was the British Comedy Awards; that is in our process at the moment and will be out in the coming weeks. I think there is without doubt a general question about that period which relates to the issue of corporate compliance. It is easy, I think, to identify or think about this programme by programme and that is in a sense what has happened, but my own view is that there is a broader question about the standards of overall corporate compliance in what was clearly a systemic and widespread problem. Whether that should involve the police or not is a matter for the police. In a previous case the Serious Fraud Office did contact us, did ask us for the files and information which we immediately gave them (this was the GMTV case) and to our knowledge they have not taken that particular case further. The question of whether it is a matter for the police is really a matter for them. They know what we have done; they know the issues; it is fully in the public domain. No-one could possibly have missed it so I think that is a question properly addressed to them. My own view is that there is an important outstanding question about the overall level of corporate compliance because it clearly was and I think has been recognised as a widespread systemic problem, not a single issue.

  Q537  Chairman: Have you transferred the files relating to your investigation of ITV to the Serious Fraud Office?

  Mr Purvis: They have not asked for them but all the adjudications are already in the public domain on our website. We are aware that they are aware of them and should they wish to ask for more details we are only too happy to provide them.

  Q538  Chairman: You do not feel you should draw their attention to some of your findings?

  Mr Richards: I think they are well aware of what has happened. They were in contact with us during the previous case and they are very well aware of the situation.

  Q539  Mr Evans: How do you know they are aware? Have they spoken to you about it?

  Mr Richards: They have not spoken to us about this particular case; they have spoken to us about previous cases.

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