Examination of Witnesses (Questions 743-759)|
MR J PETER
MONDAY 24 JUNE 2002
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 1950swhen 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 FMwe are told there is very little
FM for radio. DABwell, 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
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 restbut 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 Cranmerhe
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?
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
(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
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' guidelinesthis
is the most regulated part of broadcasting. Add to that exploitation
of audience susceptibilities, abuse, incitement to hatred rulesagain,
duplicated by those organisations; declaration of identify, accuracy
and fairnessI 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
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 hintand
perhaps you will correct me if I got this wrongthat 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
(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 advantagean authentic voice from organised
religion that says, "Hi guys, let's check this out".
That could be quite a helpful thing to have said.