Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 743-759)




  742. I am sorry it is this late hour but it was entirely predictable. Perhaps we can be forgiven!

  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford) That can be arranged!

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico

  743. What I wanted to ask you all was do you feel that the current restrictions on religious ownership have in practice inhibited the development of religious content on radio and television?
  (Mr Littler) Yes, we think they certainly have in the sense of hampering or hindering the development of a whole British broadcasting industry as in the Christian broadcasting industry, and the word "inhibited" really for us raises a big issue of unfulfilled demand, which is that the industry has been inhibited and is not able to meet that demand nationally, in fact, and in fact it might be a good thing if I handed over to Reverend Alderton-Ford on the issue of unfulfilled demand because that is a key issue for us in terms of inhibition.
  (Reverend Alderton-Ford) If radio is the Friday afternoon issue, I suppose religious broadcasting is the Sunday morning issue! As I understand it, there are between 3-5 million Christians in the UK and at least a million of other faith groups, and there are also many millions of people outside organised religion who do have an interest in religious matters, and you only have to look at ordinary secular bookshops to see some of the biggest and fastest growing sections. Obviously, these people do not just live in a single region: they live nationally, and there are concerns and issues everywhere, and just providing a regional provision we feel is not adequate. It is worth noting that all these groups pay their taxes; they are by and large law abiding; they are licensed fee-paying people; and yet their interests are not reflected in what the BBC provide and what ITV provide. ITV seems to have diminished its output, and while BBC capacity has risen in real terms, its output for British broadcasting has declined by two thirds. The sort of things they want to hear and see on the television would reinforce shared values of morality, family values, and also the rule of law, and it is worth noting that religious broadcasting reinforces the multi faith and multi ethnic aspects of our society and, if you ban it, you effectively discriminating against allowing people to participate in society. For example, Premier Radio's audience, which is the only one we have figures for, has over 50 per cent which is non white. If you want to get multi ethnic groups participating in society, religious broadcasting is an effective way of doing it. There is a potential with that audience to create a vibrant industry which will bring both jobs and revenue to the country. I think a more tantalising prospect is it helps the public service broadcasters fulfil their requirements. Because there is an industry, who do they get programme makers for? We are in exactly the same position as in the 1950s—when the BBC had a total monopoly, the quality of the BBC was pretty poor and, as soon as ITV started, the standards of both companies rose, and I believe British broadcasters can help them do that. Also, I have been listening to what you have been saying about reciprocity but, as I understand the legislation, the Americans are going to be allowed to broadcast and buy in when the indigenous religious groups are not going to have any access at all. It is a bit like running a premiership where not only all the players are foreign but all the coaches are foreign and all the clubs are owned by foreigners. In fact, Manchester United, Chelsea and Leeds get wound up and Rio de Janeiro comes in and plays. That would be totally unallowable in sport, yet that is precisely the situation we find ourselves in with religion. I think that the idea that we are perpetrating unfamiliar demand is being maintained by an obsolete and by a large and unjustified legislation which is only really supported by outmoded attitudes, and this issue suffocates healthy investment in the whole industry.
  (Mr Wilson) Because we have had a lack of the ability for Christian broadcasters to make programmes, unlike overseas, Christian broadcasters have been limited to providing stuff for the BBC until 1990, and it is only since 1990 that they have had the ability to make programmes for satellite television in terms of television, or to make radio programmes for primary local radio. That has held our industry back massively and what we would like to see is the ability to expand the whole industry. We keep being told that Christian broadcasters are held back because there is a spectrum shortage yet the Minister said on 19 June at BAFTA that, in a multi channel world where spectrum scarcity is no longer an issue, there will be even more channels than now, and we wonder why religious broadcasters are being held back. Christians have already lost out on FM—we are told there is very little FM for radio. DAB—well, we are glad that the anomaly is going to be removed for DAB but what does that actually mean in practice? By the time this Bill becomes an Act, all 45 of the local digital multiplexes will have been advertised and there will be programme providers already on them. With the 12 year licence and rollover, that means religious broadcasters who wanted to get onto DAB will be effectively locked out. Also, religious broadcasters, even with a music channel, cannot get on to a national service. It is interesting to note that, if I want to provide a jazz channel or a classical music channel on a national digital multiplex, that is no problem, but as soon as I say I want to provide a gospel music service, even as a commercial company, the regulators start imposing a whole lot of regulation which I do not believe Parliament wanted them to do in the first place when the 1996 Act went through, but what they are saying is they are looking into the background of the company and the individual and possibly finding, because I am a member of a church or an officer of a church, that I am a banned person and therefore cannot apply.

Mr Lansley

  744. Can I be clear about what you think you would like the Bill to say because essentially, if I understand it correctly, the Bill is designed under Clause 232 to change the previous prohibition on religious bodies and persons and is designed to give scope to OFCOM to allow such persons to hold certain kinds of licences. If we were in a digital world, let's say, there is a whole range of digital programme services and additional restricted service licences for digital radio and television that would be able to be held by religious bodies or persons. So I think it might be useful just to focus, because the question of spectrum shortage is really a big deal where analogue is concerned far more than digital, on the Bill as it relates to digital. If the intention of the Bill is effectively to allow OFCOM no longer to disqualify people by virtue of being religious persons automatically but to have a degree of discretion, and that a lot of licences and programmes will then be available, are we not 60 per cent towards where you want to be, or 70 per cent?
  (Mr Littler) If I may address that, I think to be honest we are 1 per cent towards where we want to be in terms of a constitutional issue. If I can get the first part of your question right, you are saying what do you want, is that right?

  745. What do you want, in addition to what the Government are promising?
  (Mr Littler) In a digital world, and we put a document to you recently, numbers 5 and 6, we asked you please to implement the decisions of Parliament when you previously looked at this issue, so we are asking please would you delete Clause 232. Previously when Parliament looked at this subject your institution decided that you were going to allow only fit and proper persons into religious ownership: you were only going to allow responsible but not exploitative religious programming, and you then implemented a set of codes which we were involved in the drawing-up of in terms of responsible religious broadcasting, so we are asking, please, you to see that those are implemented. Last but not least we asked as an additional suggestion you to consider, please, the idea of an ombudsman or a Parliamentary Committee to whom people like us could refer if we feel that we are, to be frank with you, being discriminated against. Does that tell you what we are asking for?

  746. No, because all of these are to do with content and regulation of content, not ownership. Are you effectively saying in terms of ownership that you want ownership rules relating to religious persons to be completely removed?
  (Mr Littler) Yes. We feel that is a very serious issue and a constitutional issue. After the 1990 Act, a representative of the Labour Party came to us and apologised for the fact that this had got into law. We then received an approach by the Conservative Party who then apologised for what had happened there and put into their manifesto that they were going to remove this ban. We were happy with that. In all fairness to the Liberal Democrats, on grounds of liberalism, the Liberal Democrats have all along expressed reservations about this issue but, if I may deal with it as a constitutional issue, we are very concerned about the fact that this is in law and that now, for the first time, Parliament is going to be asked knowingly to vote for this. We feel that overturns about a thousand years of religious freedom in this country and, briefly, you may have been reading Magna Carta or Halsbury's Laws recently but if you have not, the Magna Carta from the year 1215 stated, ". . . we . . . have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired . . . This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity". If you declare that religious persons are disqualified from this area of public life in legislation knowingly, fair enough, that is your decision but it needs to be Parliament's decision. The Handbook on Religious Liberty Around the World states: "The English legal system assumes human rights are protected unless specifically limited by statute. Although Parliament's power to enact legislation is, in theory, absolute, the normal checks and balances of democracy are fully effective in the UK . . . As stated in Halsbury's Laws, Vol 8, para 828, `it is well understood that certain civil liberties are highly prized, and in consequence Parliament is unlikely, except in emergencies, to pass legislation constituting a serious interference with them.' Freedom of religion therefore enjoys a considerable degree of protection arising from such traditional notions, despite the lack of formal protection." Our concern is that this would, in effect, be a violation of that lack of formal protection.

  Chairman: You have made those points in your evidence to us. Let us move on.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  747. Since I taught history for 40 years, you talk of a thousand years of religious freedom but I think Archbishop Cranmer and some of the people Elizabeth I hanged would narrow it down a little bit? I felt I must make that point. A thousand years meant the English church, not the rest—but let us get down to the nitty gritty.
  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford) I do not think Elizabeth I hanged Cranmer.

  748. No. Elizabeth hanged the separatists, the people that tried to be non conformists. I know who burnt Cranmer—he was not hanged. Tony Stoller of the Radio Authority said when he gave evidence about what you are suggesting, "The difficulty arises when you move into national radio services of which there can only be very few. There will, as far as we can possibly foresee, only ever be three national commercial radio stations, and only one of those has a speech remit. The notion of that being subject to the highest bid between different religions or different religious denominations seems to us to be horrendous. That is the position of the present legislation. That has been tested in the European Court and has stood up so we think that is right." What is your view, then, on whether the only national, commercial, speech-based radio station should be open to allocation to a religious organisation. Would you all accept, or do you differ, that the requirement on the regulator to accept the highest bid meeting the necessary conditions could pose particular problems in this area if any religious organisation could apply for the licence?
  (Mr Littler) That is a question from 1989, having been involved in the previous broadcast legislation then, and we do not feel that is a question in the digital future. If we could try to address—

  749. The digital future is possibly seven or eight more years away.
  (Mr Littler) In the last two years the Radio Authority allocated ten national digital radio licences to independent multiplex, and in addition a second multiplex was allocated to the BBC with a further ten national radio stations, while we have been told there is frequency scarcity. But it might be helpful if my colleague addressed the issues raised by the Radio Authority response.

  750. And if you could pull in the question of the European Court as well.
  (Ms Hargreaves) I know you have had a lot to cope with today so we have got these print-outs that we have prepared for you, but we do value the opportunity just to put right the information where we felt you were misled. The case that was taken to the Court of Human Rights in 1998 was never heard at court. It did not stand up; it was not heard; the court chose not to hear it. Since then we have put a complaint in and, on 14 March this year, we were given a new application number and the case has been reopened, so we would wish you to know that that has not been heard and it is still on-going. As such, we cannot discuss it any further because it is just at the point of entering the court. We are concerned that the Radio Authority do keep giving us the information that there are only three national radio stations, and yet we heard the Minister herself saying that, in the digital future, there will be more and even more frequencies. We do not desire to go back; we wish to go forward and develop our industry, just like each other industry, in the world where we now live, where every voice has a right to be heard. We are not asking for anything special: we are saying that, in amidst all these voices, I am sure there is room for the voice of people of faith to be heard on the airwaves.
  (Mr Littler) My Lord Chairman, can we submit that response to you, please?

  Chairman: Yes.

Mr Harvey

  751. I am interested in looking at content regulation. Clause 212 imposes a standards objectives and subsection (7) refers to " . . . safeguard against religious bigotry, and against improperly taking advantage of the audience's religious susceptibilities". Now the Evangelical Alliance says "this Clause, and the broadcasting codes developed from it, should be worded in such a way as not to inhibit or stop discussion by faith communities of their beliefs". Do you think that the current wording does in fact do that and, if so, how would you want to see it changed?
  (Mr Wilson) We would like to see the ability of faith communities on radio or TV stations just to be able to discuss things openly and fairly. There was a case at the back end of last year where the regulator felt that some of the programmes, having had complaints from a small group of people who stayed up until 5.30 in the morning to listen to Christian programmes on a local radio station in this city, were not right. People were freely and fairly discussing their faith and their beliefs. I have no objection if somebody on another station says that their belief book is right as long as I on my radio station have the same right to say it without causing any incitement to racial or religious hatred. We believe we should be able to have the ability to discuss freely and fairly, and we feel that the way the present rules have been implemented have held people back from being able to do that.

  752. So it is the code and the way OFCOM operates that you fear, rather than the wording of the Bill itself?
  (Mr Wilson) Absolutely.

  753. Can I just pick up another point you made which followed on directly from that? You said "Nor should the Clause be used to curtail comments on news stories". Now that set me thinking a bit. What happens, with a General Election campaign raging, and the news stories all being very political? Are we going to get a situation where there is a sort of religious commentary accompanying that and where it is recommended that God says you should vote one particular way or another—
  (Mr Wilson) Not at all. There are regulations already in place by both the ITC and the Radio Authority governing what one can or cannot say during election time. We have no objections to those at all and would stick to them. We would not want to be like a large radio operator who was fined for making comments during the last election.

  754. Is not what the Bill is really getting at improper advantage taking of the audience's religious susceptibilities? Is that not really trying to stop the fund-raising of American groups?
  (Mr Wilson) The codes are already there that prevent that. Broadcasting codes by both the ITC and the Radio Authority are already in place to do that, and all responsible religious broadcasters in the UK stick to those. All we are saying is, "Treat us the same as everybody else".

  755. What sort of religious comment on news stories would you like to see?
  (Mr Wilson) The Rwanda situation would be a place where you would want to make comment because there are points from both sides and one needs to have a religious comment about why we feel it happened. There may be spiritual matters that do not normally get discussed on mainstream broadcasters that Christian or other faith communities as well on their stations would want to discuss. That is just open discussion, free discussion.


  756. May I ask Jonathan, picking up the next question, what sort of domestic news stories you would wish to have the right to comment on?
  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford) I think one of the domestic news stories, for example, is the huge amount of charitable work and voluntary section work done by churches and Christians, for example, the Indian earthquake which happened just a short while ago. We would like that to be covered because hundreds of people from all different faith groups and a lot of non faith groups rallied round and supported that, and we did lots of positive things. I think there is a news blackout in that, as soon as it is church, unfortunately local radio and television do not want to cover it and a lot of good things are missed.
  (Mr Littler) Addressing this from the point of view of the Christian broadcasting industry, there is no history of religious hatred ever in British religious broadcasting. In fact, I would dare to say I think it has been some of the highest quality in the world, and one of the reasons is that all of us have basically adopted and followed on our training from the BBC rules that we should be broadcasting for the betterment of society with justice and honesty in private and public life, etc. When you talk about news stories, all we are saying is that, as independent Christian broadcasting stations, we want to be able to run public affairs programmes, as we already do on the numerous Christian radio satellite services that go out from this country, and have attracted a listenership and have not attracted, as far as I am aware, any sort of adverse response even though the services have been available internationally across Europe.

Mr Lansley

  757. But you do not want to be able to apply the same rules on balance as the BBC apply?
  (Mr Littler) We want to be able to apply all the rules we are asked to and have been asked to by Parliament and I would refer you to the question answered by Dr Howells recently—

  758. In this context that is a particularly circular answer because we are considering what rules Parliament is going to apply, so the question is what do you want to have applied to you, the rules of balance or not?
  (Mr Littler) Yes. Let me refer to Dr Howells' list of rules: responsibility and religious programme content taken from the existing rules that are already laid down by the Broadcasting Standards Council and an equivalent set by the ITC and an equivalent set by the Radio Authority and the BBC producers' guidelines—this is the most regulated part of broadcasting. Add to that exploitation of audience susceptibilities, abuse, incitement to hatred rules—again, duplicated by those organisations; declaration of identify, accuracy and fairness—I hope that answers that one; recognition of other religions, appeals and donations, recruitment, claims, substantiations, blasphemy, etc. We are very happy to be regulated but we are not happy to be banned or disqualified or treated as disqualified persons.

Mr Harvey

  759. Let us probe this. Peter was saying a minute ago he wants to be able to put his religious belief on his station. That may have just been a form of words so let us not get hung up on it. I think what Andrew is saying is that, where you are working to the sort of guidelines that the BBC and other broadcasters operate to, if somebody else has got a completely contrary point of view they would come along and put it on the same programme a minute or two later, and I think I slightly got a hint—and perhaps you will correct me if I got this wrong—that you think that other people with another religious view ought to go out and get their own station and put their own view on that one.
  (Mr Wilson) You freely and fairly discuss on your station a point of view, and you allow people to phone in or send in faxes and discuss things across that. That is the way that British broadcasting operates and that is the way that one would want to do it, and if people owned a Muslim or Jewish station we would expect them to fit with the same rules.
  (Mr Littler) Until recently two of us were in charge of a Christian broadcasting station employing the best part of 100 people. We employed professional journalists and professional programme schedulers and those people are still in place; they are producing programme output that is not causing any problems that fits in with existing rules; all we are saying is we do not want to be told continually, "You have to stay on satellite. We have a problem with an audience". We have hundreds of thousands of people in this country who have expressed a desire to hear these broadcasts. They cannot hear them terrestrially and we cannot get the licences in order to be able to broadcast to them.
  (Reverend Jonathan Alderton-Ford) To put it very specifically, I have had the misfortune of listening to Mr Paisley talk about his religious beliefs for the last thirty years, and I have yet to hear any commentator say, "I wonder how that compares with the beatitudes", and I think that is an insight that Christian broadcasters could bring to people who make use of religion for political advantage—an authentic voice from organised religion that says, "Hi guys, let's check this out". That could be quite a helpful thing to have said.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 6 August 2002