Examination of Witnesses (Questions 36-39)
MR PAUL BOLT, MR NORMAN MCLEAN AND MS ANDREA MILLWOOD HARGRAVE
THURSDAY 23 MAY 2002
36. Thank you very much for coming to see us; we are very grateful. Could I kick off with this question? Are you entirely satisfied that the draft Bill makes adequate provision to ensure that the main functions of the BSC relating to research and complaints are carried out effectively by the proposed OFCOM?
(Mr Bolt) I think the general answer to that must be yes. Sarah touched just now on our fairness remit and procedures, and that is pretty well carried over and unamended into the Bill. I think that works well already; we already do it on behalf of the ITC and the Radio Authority when they get complaints in that sphere. As to the research, we are pleased to see that in some ways that is strengthened. There is a "shall" in the elements relating to our kind of research, and I think the extension to media literacy is also very important and very welcome. I think the way in which we see long-term media literacy is the way you achieve deregulation and less interference in content without annoying people or lowering standards, so we think that is very important and we welcome it being visibly recognised. On the standards side, the main change is that the Bill does not carry forward the BSC's current statutory duty to consider all the complaints made to it about taste, decency, etc. (We very much welcome, incidentally, the term `generally accepted standards'. We believe that makes more sense). I think personally we would accept that it is not necessary to carry forward that kind of duty, and I think it is right that the Bill, in effect, allows OFCOM, and more particularly its Content Board, to devise its own procedures for how it deals with complaints from the public about standards.
37. Having prepared yourselves for the creation of a separate Content Board, what do you think particularly about Clauses 17 and 18? Are you satisfied that these allow for the Board to undertake the role you envisage for it?
(Mr Bolt) I think yes, we are. I very much endorse much of what ITC colleagues said. The Content Board has the very important role of insulation which has been referred to; people know that there is a board which is looking specifically at content which is not going to get distracted by other important considerations that OFCOM has but equally, as Patricia rightly said, these fascinating content issues do not drown the agenda of the main board. To be really effective what the Content Board will be doing will be looking beyond actual regulation of content and beyond the functions that are specifically delegated to it and referred to on the face of the Bill. It will be taking, I hope, a wider view of the health of the content production industry and of the regulatory and economic environment within which content is being created and distributed, and so some of the other limbs of OFCOM may be very importantmay be more important in some respects to the health of content than the regulation of content per se. So I think it is very welcome. We were the first to suggest it so it is not surprising we commend it! I think the ITC were right to say this is a relationship which has to be allowed to evolve between the main board and the Content Board and I would not personally wish to see it specified in any more detail than it is specified.
38. Very briefly, you say the ITC were right on that; do you think they were also right earlier this morning on their view of the relationship with the BBC and OFCOM? Do you accept that the BBC should, for Tier Three, be responsible to its governors and so on but as regards the Content Board be more under OFCOM?
(Mr Bolt) Our view has always been, and we are on record as saying, that we think the BBC should even at Tier Three level come under OFCOM to the same extent and in the same way as the other broadcasters.
39. So that is a difference from the ITC?
(Mr Bolt) It is a difference from the ITC. In a sense we are the only people at the moment to have the privilege of being able to adjudicate on the BBC's output. But in a way I hope that Parliament does not get obsessed with this detail because I think quite frankly, if OFCOM's Content Board establishes an authority as an informed commentator on content and with sharp and convincing analyses, annual or otherwise, on what is happening, and if it makes a convincing critique of what the BBC has been doing and how it falls short of what it said it would do, then I think frankly the backstop powers of the Secretary of State may not matter too much, and if OFCOM is just regarded as a super nanny and a second-rater making up comments off-the-cuff then it will not carry the authority to matter really with the BBC anyway.