Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 794-799)




  793. I am sorry to hear that Jocelyn Hay is in hospital. Do please send her our warmest regards and hope for a speedy recovery. Professor Porter, welcome.

  (Professor Porter) Thank you, my Lord Chairman. I will convey those wishes to her.

Lord McNally

  794. The reason why many of us have been very enthusiastic for pre-legislative scrutiny is that it gives bodies like yours a chance to influence legislation in advance of it becoming hard and fast. Can you suggest any changes to OFCOM's proposed general duties which you would like to see? This is the moment.
  (Professor Porter) It seems to us that there are a number of key areas where OFCOM's duties are not clear and it would help if they could be made clear. The first is in the terms of public service broadcasting. The UK is a signatory to the Council of Europe's ministerial resolution on public service broadcasting. We would like to see that translated into domestic law and OFCOM does have a duty to ensure that the UK's public service broadcasters meet those obligations. The second is in the field of universal service which, as we read the Bill, only extends to telecommunications. There is I think growing realisation and recognition that universal service for broadcasting and in particular for public service broadcasting is essentially in the 21 st century. Following that I think there are some general concerns which are raised in directives of the European Union in relation to electronic communication both in regard to the delivery of interactive services in the future, that is that there should be an open European standard which is currently called MLP (multi-level platform) and also that a multiple application programme is the basis and should be open so that they can be on a common transmission system. In addition to that would be the electronic programme guide which is the guide that allows viewers access into the system. There should be a common standard across all delivery modes so that there is a standard electronic programme guide that viewers can use for all systems, not having to have different guides for very different delivery systems. Those general duties are valuable to be given to OFCOM. We can of course go on to discuss aspects of what is meant by public service broadcasting if you wish.
  (Mr Petley) Can I make a very general point here, that I think that what we certainly would campaign for is OFCOM not being merely defensive of public service broadcasting principles actively to be promoting public service broadcasting. That I think is very important. The second general point I would like to make is that we are somewhat concerned about what appears to be a contradiction between means and ends in the duties upon OFCOM. On the one hand it is supposed to promote competition in the provision and making available of broadcast services. On the other hand though it has to ensure that those services are of high quality, they are wide-ranging in the sector. We are certainly not convinced that unregulated competition is the best way to achieve that. Regulated competition yes, but not unregulated.
  (Mr Buckley) Public Voice's position on this is relatively straightforward. We believe the interests of citizens should come first and the duties of OFCOM should spell out the need to promote the interests of citizens as well as consumers. The Bill drafted as it is at present does not do so. In the clauses relating to the European directive requirements it does refer to the importance of promoting the interests of European citizens but those European directives only apply to the areas of electronic networks and spectrum, not to the entirety of OFCOM's remit. In the clause that sets out the fundamental duties of OFCOM we believe there should be a clear statement that OFCOM's fundamental duties include the promotion of the rights of citizens. The Government's position has seemed until the Bill came out to have been quite consistent about the importance of citizens . It is set out very clearly in the White Paper, but there is neither a definition of citizens who have interests in the Bill nor is there a clear statement of whether they should practise it.

  795. None of you has any fear that in trying to pile all these into the Bill you create some vast interfering nanny? We have just heard previously from the creative industry that there is a danger of this becoming a burden to the industry in its detail and its responsibilities.
  (Mr Petley) In the past one could argue that bodies like the IBA for example, the ITA were indeed vast interfering nannies and did a good deal of damage, but if you take the point of view which I have expressed just now, we are talking here about positive obligations and encouragement, I do not think that necessarily leads to vast interfering nannies. I agree with you: that is a danger to be avoided and I think that past regulation of British broadcasting to some extent should serve as a warning.
  (Mr Redding) I would say that the danger is not from our point of view of nannying but that is reducing the amount of nannying which is going to operate in the new system by moving to much more deregulation and light touch regulation, but there need at the same time to be certain safeguards and a clear framework of what is provided in the interests of citizens. The problem here is that the Government is trying to meet two objectives, one of which is the commercial imperatives in allowing the operation of the market and freedom for commercial activity, but the other is, as they have said consistently, to protect the interests of citizens and consumers. There are specific mechanisms and specific duties in the Bill with regard to consumers. As Steve said, there are no such mechanisms and no such duties with regard to citizens in the debate that has been had so far and Steve and others of us have been going to many of these seminars. Citizens often appear to be defined as people who may be offended and may at some point complain. We have a much broader, more participative definition of citizenship in the information society and we feel that that needs to be recognised and protected in the Bill.

  796. Have you either individually or collectively got positive suggestions to the Bill Team as to how the Bill can be strengthened in this way?
  (Mr Buckley) We have specific amendments that we have proposed and will propose before the consultation to amend clause 3 of the Bill concerning the rights of citizens. That also needs to be followed through into a broader, more comprehensive definition of functions which we have certainly been led to understand can play a key role in this area but whose functions also are not sufficiently set out.
  (Professor Porter) What we are interested in is programme choice for viewers and listeners and choice of good quality programmes and it is a question of how we get that. One of the ways in which we see this being done is through developing and expanding the tradition of public service broadcasting so that viewers have programme choice and not just channel choice, and those are quite different approaches.

  797. In your opening remarks, Professor, you did list a number of specific responsibilities which you are going to communicate to the Bill Team?
  (Professor Porter) Absolutely. This is why we see a way of achieving this but we do not see this as over-regulation.


  798. Andrew has showed me that much of that is already in the Bill. Equally, we have already put it to the Bill Team that there are certain ambiguities in the way the customs and systems are used and we gather that you will be encouraged very much to trawl through the Bill and create coherence. Before we move on, Peter, is there anything on this issue of praying in aid the European lot? Are you comfortable that you have it all tied up that the European Convention has been referred to? It is the Council of Europe Ministerial Resolution on Public Service Broadcasting.
  (Mr De Val) We have or will have.

  Chairman: We are very happy with the second one.

Mr Grogan

  799. I understand you have a number of suggestions to make on the general public service agreement (clause 181) and how that might be changed? Do you want to comment on that? At the same time your organisations have different emphases, but if I can read one sentence from the Campaign for Broadcasting Freedom: "The Bill should ensure a new commitment to a public service system in British broadcasting rather than a commercial system that can protect public service remits." Would you like to expand on that as well and how you see the future for the BBC and broadcasting?
  (Professor Porter) Broadly speaking we are concerned about the formulation in the Bill which talks about different channels taken together providing a funded service, whereas what we traditionally have is a number of public service broadcasting organisations in competition with each other. That is what we mean by regulated competition. This to our mind actually stimulates better programmes because the public service broadcasters are competing with one another. If you now move to a system which is what we understand the Bill to mean that there is an overall provision of public service broadcasting, what we fear is that the commercially financed public service broadcasters will have what they would see as burdens on them lightened and more and more difficult or minority programmes would be transferred to the BBC and this would seem to us to be a diminution of the public service provision, not an enhancement.
  (Mr Petley) I think the problem will be that a commercial public service broadcaster might say, "I don't need to do that kind of programming because the BBC does it already." That is the problem, I think, with this notion of "taken together" which crops up quite a lot. The other thing I would like to add is that we need to get away from the idea which somehow seems to be floated that there are certain kinds of programme which are public service and certain kinds which are not. I think the important thing about public service broadcasting is that it is a kind of mixed and balanced diet. If you look at the schedule across BBC1 or ITV on a particular evening or a particular week, there is a kind of mix of programming there and, therefore, something like Blind Date is also public service broadcasting just as Panorama is as well. It is the mix, I think, which is important. That is the point we would like to stress.
  (Mr Buckley) We welcome the fact that there is a definition of public service broadcasting here. There are elements of it which we consider need refining but, in addition to that, probably the broadest problem is much the same as Julian has indicated, which is that currently public service broadcasting as defined in the bill consists of a list of national television stations which already exist and, effectively, it may well provide a useful protection of the status quo but it says very little about how we are going to develop new and diverse forms of public service broadcasting in the future. In particular, there are those in the community broadcasting sector who strongly believe they should be understood as public service broadcasting. There are people running local community television stations who think they should be much higher up the pecking order of things, who think that they should have guaranteed coverage on cable systems as the major public service broadcasters do now, but they fall outside the remit of this. With new channels coming on board, there are probably opportunities for new innovative approaches to new national channels, in the way that Channel Four was an innovative public service and still is. There are opportunities for more innovative public service broadcasters but there is no indication in the bill or in the Government's approach as to how we are going to see those sorts of things emerge.

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