Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820-827)



Mr Lansley

  820. May I move to the questions relating to public service broadcasting issues. Where those are concerned, you share the views of the Independent Television Commission to a large extent. In particular, you say that the current draft means that the remits for public service broadcasters will be far too general, referring to clause 182. But is not the remit there effectively simply to translate what has been the remit as agreed under their licence and is in any case necessarily filled out by the structure of statements of programme policy they are obliged to make and in due course will be checked against the general requirement for public service television broadcasting. Why do you need the remit in particular to become more detailed?
  (Ms Lennard) I think on this we have not done extremely detailed work ourselves, but, given that the Independent Television Commission is the existing content regulator, regulating existing commercial broadcasters, we take extremely seriously their view and we are also aware of the fact that the ITC itself has been rightly withdrawing from extremely detailed, heavy-handed regulations, more sort of overall regulation, and therefore, if the ITC considers that there are possible defects in the current drafting of the bill, we would take that on board very seriously.

  821. For these purposes, you are representing the views of the ITC not of consumers
  (Ms Lennard) I think so, yes. The other point on which we did also agree with them very strongly is the fact that, under the current drafting of the bill, OFCOM would only be required to produce a statement across public service broadcasting generally every three years, whereas the broadcasters would be required to produce annual statements of programming policy.

  822. Does the BBC not produce an annual statement of programming policy at its own discretion?
  (Ms Lennard) Yes, it does.

  823. What are you saying should be happening, that the annual statement of programming policy and the three year review of the general requirements for public service television broadcasting should be brought together as if they were one and the same thing?
  (Ms Lennard) No ... Well, that OFCOM should be required to produce an overall statement on public service broadcasting annually rather than every three years. It may not be as detailed as one it might produce every, say, two or three years, but, given that the broadcasters are going to be producing their annual statements of programming policy with reference to what OFCOM is saying every three years, it does seem to me that those two periods ought to be aligned together.

  824. You do not see any distinction between annual tactical monitoring of how programming policy should meet the general requirement and a three-year "stand back and review it"? The one-year and the three-year are complementary to one another. Leaving aside the issue of whether the annual statement of programming policy, given that they are not regulated in the same way, can diverge with one another, in effect—but, leaving that on one side—the one-year and the three-year structure, you do not see a distinction between those two things?
  (Ms Bradley) There is a distinction clearly. The first is monitoring the extent to which people do what they say they are going to do. The second, every three years, is looking at the overall delivery of all public service broadcasters across the piece to look at whether we have got what we want. Quite clearly they are different. We are not suggesting that one should replace the other but rather that the second, which we take to be the most important—which is the review of not whether people are doing what they say they will do but rather whether or not we are as consumer or citizens getting what we ought to get by way of public service broadcasting—is a very important co-regulatory function that OFCOM will have. I think it is one of the slight ambiguities in some areas of the bill where it talks about self-regulation, and, on the whole, what we have in the bill is co-regulation always, with back-stop powers from OFCOM. It is about how often OFCOM reviews what is happening under the self-regulatory regime to look at the extent to which it needs to interest itself in it. We would like that to happen on a more regular basis.

  825. Let us say that every three years there is this review of the general requirements of public service television, and, if OFCOM takes the view that one of the licensed public service broadcasters has not meant a sufficient contribution to that, they can issue directions. They have no powers in relation to the BBC. Do you think that is a satisfactory situation?
  (Ms Bradley) We have argued throughout these debates that the BBC should be subject to the same regulation as other service providers and brought within the terms of OFCOM. I think it is our view at this juncture that in fact both the arrangements that are being proposed in the bill and the changes being made at the BBC in relation to the role of the governors and the extent to which they will follow the same pattern of reporting that OFCOM are establishing, mean that there is a huge amount of convergence. What we would want to see is a commitment to reviewing that very carefully at the point of charter renewal.

Lord McNally

  826. I detect a slight change in your evidence. You may be interested to know from the online forum that Robert Beveridge of Napier and Edinburgh Universities actually supports your idea of the BBC being fully under OFCOM. He sees that as a way of getting away from government interference in the BBC. But I would like you to develop what you have just said because it is a movement. I think some of us were a little surprised that the National Consumer Council, of all organisations, would want to tip the BBC into an organisation of which we do not know the structure, we do not know the chairman, we do not know the ethos, we do not know whether it will be one of these bodies that is totally dominated by competition. Why have the governors failed so completely that you would buy this particular pig in a poke?
  (Ms Bradley) Let's hope it is not a pig in a poke. I think we have more optimism about the way that OFCOM will fulfill its responsibilities, perhaps. Yes, there are questions about whether it would achieve that, but that is what we believe and we are of the view generally that such regulatory arrangements serve consumers well. Saying that the BBC should be part of that arrangement does not necessarily imply that the board of governors are doing a bad job; it is rather looking at what the BBC are delivering and their part in the overall broadcasting ecology which leads us to the view that they ought to be part of this structure. At the beginning of this debate the National Consumer Council was very clear that consumer interest in arriving at a single regulator was all about convergence and the delivery of a universal service, both in terms of channels and in terms of content, and the BBC is the primary but not the only deliverer of universal service and content. It makes no sense to us, therefore, to see that primary deliverer of public service broadcasting outwith the basic regulatory framework. We also think that it is very difficult to arrive at and unsatisfactory to have a situation where a non-executive board are responsible for the strategy and positioning of an organisation such as the BBC and is also responsible for the regulation. And I think we would agree with the professor quoted, that actually the BBC, in its reporting directly to the Secretary of State, has a line of report, albeit established as an independent body, which might benefit from having more distance, which we believe a regulator would have.

  827. Just to repeat your reply to Mr Lansley, you concede that it might be better to make that final decision at Charter Review when in fact we may have a better idea also of the kind of body OFCOM actually is than doing it now.
  (Ms Bradley) Not for that reason but because I think pragmatically it is not possible to make those changes until Charter Review. We see a lot of changes which have taken place in the interim which give us the sense that people are understanding that we are moving in a direction where we need some more coherence between the two regulatory arrangements. So it is a pragmatic position. I have to say also that we are rather concerned that what are some very, very important issues about communications will become very over-dominated by debates about not just the BBC but broadcasting and we are keen to give space to make sure we take all the other issues.
  (Ms Lennard) Could I just add that putting the BBC eventually within OFCOM would not imply that it was being regulated in the same way. OFCOM is going to have to regulate a variety of bodies which will all have their different remits and different functions and it will have to do that according to the remit. Going back to statements about programming policy, what this does give us is a couple of years hopefully to see how the commercial broadcasters and the BBC are producing those statements of programming policy and to get that process more closely aligned, so that we can see the whole of the PSB and also, hopefully, in the run up to Charter Review, see best how the BBC can be brought more sensibly within OFCOM. We have a little more time now for those processes to be more closely allied together, particularly with the statements and monitoring the programming policy.

  Chairman: Unfortunately, we have run out of time, but it would be useful if you could e-mail or write to us because you suggest, along with a lot of other people, that you want OFCOM to be able to penalise the BBC on a similar basis to the other licensed producers but not in such a way that punishes licence fee payers. This subject has come up several times and there have been several suggestions. If you could write to us with your own suggestions as to what means might be used, that would be very welcome. Thank you both very much indeed.

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