Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 196-199)



  Chairman: You could not possibly imagine how it warms the cockles of a film producer's heart to have standing room only. Thank you very much indeed for taking the time to come and see us. I gather you do not want to pre-empt what you are going to say with a statement so we will go straight into questions if that is all right.

Mr Grogan

  196. On 21 May you made a major speech when you said there were three approaches to revising the Television without Frontiers Directive, either radical amendment, fine tuning or preparing a work programme to consider revisions at a later date. You recommended the third of those I think. I wonder in the subsequent meeting with the Council of Ministers how did that approach go down? What do you see as the timetable now for that revision?

   (Ms Reding) You know that by European law we have to have made a review of the current Directive. The current Directive has been in action now for around three years and the review is due at the end of the year. It is very difficult to predict how the audiovisual sector will evolve in the coming years. It is very important also because in all European countries the free-to-air television is the main source of information and it has also cross-border importance. That is the reason why Europe is regulating. We cannot regulate this as purely an economic problem because the public interest objective is at stake. We have also to take into consideration that technology alone does not decide the development of the market because the most important factor is human behaviour. Twenty years ago the free-to-air television had 47 TV channels—I am always speaking of Europe—today we have 1,500 but only 50 are important. When I read your Bill you have only very few for which you have developed your Bill. It is this problem that we have been discussing in hearings very thoroughly with the whole profession because personally I believe that you cannot develop regulation top down but you have to develop a bottom up method by first listening to the professionals. There have been wide hearings of mainly all the professionals in film and in television and in surrounding elements and they have all agreed that there is an insecure economic climate, that there is an insecure future development of the infrastructure of the profession. Nobody knows today how things are going to be in five years. Interestingly, two years ago everybody knew perfectly well what the development would be. In two years' time the mentality has changed and the uncertainty has changed. Also the crack down in publicity has made a very big change. Pay TV has been fairly unsuccessful in Europe's largest market—Germany—and is in crisis in Italy, Spain and possibly France. How far have we got? There have been three major studies: technological and market development, new advertisement techniques, measures of promoting the distribution, that means quotas, did they work or did they not work? There have been a lot of bilateral meetings between the Commissioner and the responsible people in TV, I have nearly met them all, including in your country, and they have 95 per cent said "Be cautious, wait". I went with this proposal to the Ministers and the Ministers in very rare unanimity have followed me, probably because they had all spoken with the profession before. So they said "okay, the future is insecure, let us not say that we do not amend the Directive but let us prepare this future amendment", because nobody believes that the fine tuning of the current Directive will be enough, everybody believes that if we amend we have to do it thoroughly, we have to go very much further than the actual Directive, and such an important piece of legislation you cannot do just like that, you have to have everybody agree before the Commission presents it. That is why now the way we are proceeding is the following: we are going to have a detailed work programme for 2003 with the agreement of the profession and the Ministers. I will present such a work programme at the end of this year. This work programme will include the profession. I will continue the same way I have done so far and that is to do nothing without hearing continuously the advice of the profession. Then we have also to take into account the major legislative developments out of which your Bill, I am sure, is going to be the most important piece of legislation and also the most radical reform. So all this together, the counsel of the public, the political discussion with the Ministers and with the European Parliament, taking into consideration the legislative development in the Member States, will then possibly lead to a major proposal for an amendment after this new consultation work has been completed.

  Mr Grogan: Thank you.

Lord Crickhowell

  197. I confess I am a tiny bit lost having read your speech and heard what you have said. I entirely understand that the people are against fine tuning but when you talk about the possible need for a radical amendment you said in your speech, as you have told us this evening, that everyone has different views and no-one is able to predict the way forward. Therefore, I have no indication at all as in what direction even you think the radical change might take us. I can see that you cannot give us the detail but can you at least point in the general direction of radical change so we have some idea of what you think that might be?
  (Ms Reding) As you have rightly said, we do not know what the future will be. We thought in the beginning that the digital development would be extraordinarily rapid but in most Member States it is less rapid than we thought. Are we going to include in a package things related to the television? For instance, are we linking it to new forms of television, are we linking it to the Internet, or are we not going to do that? Those are questions which have to be treated. I would argue, but this is my idea which has to be confirmed first, for a more content based definition, not infrastructure based but a content based definition. I know this is not so easy and I could have presented such things straight ahead but I did not want to do that because I believe in European politics you cannot just impose in such a delicate situation as the media because the media is linked to our public, our public's purely political interest and political stuff, but there are also the interests of the consumer or of the viewer which have to be taken into consideration, the protection of the consumer, and the protection of the young consumer most of all. Because the media is not like any other economic business it needs special political care and that is why I would like to listen a lot. In the end I will have to take a decision by myself because the Commission is making the proposal but the moment I make a proposal you can be sure that most politicians and most professionals will agree with what I propose.

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico

  198. This is really a supplementary, Commissioner, on what you have just been asked, specifically on what changes in the Directive you think might be necessary as a result of the development of digital technology. Are you confident that any changes in the Directive will not lead you into regulating the Internet?
  (Ms Reding) You know my opinion about regulating the Internet. In 1998 the Commission in a Council recommendation on the protection of minors and human dignity in audiovisual and information services already touched on this. Whenever possible, that is my political belief. I do not like hard regulations. Whenever possible with the guarantee for the public, of course, I will go to the direction of self-regulation. Most of all, in a domain like the Internet. It is easy to regulate the old-fashioned TV where you can control but to regulate a worldwide web is more difficult. At the same time we have to give some guarantees, for instance, to parents concerning the protection of minors. We have to eliminate all harmful content. I think that certain minimal requirements are necessary. There can be a complementary approach, I believe, between soft law and hard law. I believe it is somehow the same way, if I have understood what you have written down in your Bill, that you want to proceed. I would completely agree with this way of tackling things.

Lord McNally

  199. Commissioner, you have said some rather robust things about the special nature of the communications market. At the moment one of your "wherever possibles", "wherever practicables", applies to the amount of air time and programme budget given to European works made by independent producers and independent organisations. In the system that we are trying to evolve, do you see pressure for that kind of Directive to be increased? Do you see part of your role as protecting a cultural identity by specifying a certain amount of European production and a certain amount of independent production because in some ways that goes contrary to your light touch in terms of application to this market? If I may give my opinion, I think you are right to be a champion of cultural identity but do you see yourself as such?
  (Ms Reding) You are also a champion of cultural identity because, if I read the Bill correctly, your protection measures for the regional cultures are very strong and I must say I agree with that because I believe that the greatest richness Europe has is the cultural diversity, so we need to protect that. You can do both. In certain ways, like on the Internet, you can do soft regulation and, on the other hand, impose quotas for the benefit of society. The quota question is very controversial in Europe. You do not have all countries looking at quotas in the same way. I will have to manoeuvre very carefully. We have made an analysis about what kind of result the Directive on quotas has obtained and they have been exceeded by nearly all television stations around Europe, so you see it works. You know that the legal position is to co-ordinate the different pieces of legislation in different countries. As to the economic feasibility of quotas, I think that depends more on the type of channel rather than the way it is transmitted. This is why there is this "where practicable" clause. For example, a 50 per cent European output requirement might be less valid for a special pay-per-view channel than for a mainstream free-to-air channel. The second question you asked, which is linked to this, was on independent productions. The diversity of the broadcasting landscape in Europe is such that only the UK and France go beyond the basic ten per cent requirement. There is pressure to increase to ten per cent upwards from independent producers of course. They consider that the current requirements are sub-critical. Again, that is going to be one of the topics, a very political one, which we will have to discuss. I have already asked my colleague Ministers from France and from Germany, where there are the most extreme views maybe, to sit together and see if there is a way of finding each other in the middle because I believe that we have to find a medium way where we preserve certain quotas, where we preserve the independent producers. The question is not only of broadcasting time, it is also of investment and this, I believe, is very important. We are not near to unanimity on this in Europe.

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