Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence


Memorandum by Equity

INTRODUCTION

  1.  Equity welcomes this further opportunity to contribute to the discussion surrounding the review of the BBC's Royal Charter. As the trade union representing 37,000 performers and creative personnel we recognise the importance of the BBC in our society. The BBC is the most significant employer in our sector and it plays an integral role in both the audio-visual industry and as a community focus for the whole of the UK.

  2.  We have followed the Charter Review process very closely over the past two years and made submissions at each stage of the consultation. In particular we have made written submissions to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport; presented written and oral evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons; participated in the seminars held by Lord Burns and his Independent Panel; made representations on each of the individual aspects of the BBC's own internal review; and provided written evidence to this Committee of the House of Lords.

  3.  This evidence is consistent with the policy expressed elsewhere, but seeks to address the specific issues raised by this extended inquiry, which are relevant to the interest and expertise of Equity and its members.

BROADCASTING IN THE NATIONS AND REGIONS

  4.  Equity has argued for much greater decentralisation of BBC operations and particularly for a greater proportion of production to come from outside of the M25.

  5.  The regional and national spread of production in the UK has fallen short in recent years and has suffered from the acquisitions of smaller ITV companies, the closure of regional bases, reduced investment in regional programming and a narrower range of programmes produced regionally. Furthermore, what passes for "regional" production is simply being centred in two main areas of the country (ie Manchester and Leeds).

  6.  The BBC does have the ability to work across the UK to create a positive impact of the production base and workforce. However, the BBC's proposed move of sport and children's programme production to Manchester raises a number of questions and does not appear to have been subject to the appropriate level of detailed planning prior to its announcement. While it appears initially to be a bold move designed to stimulate production and create a centre of excellence in another part of the UK, there is little evidence that regional programmes making will benefit in terms of the number, diversity or investment in local production.

  7.  Moreover, in order to maximise its potential, regional programme production must not be limited to specific genres, or news and current affairs. It should include the possibility of drama and comedy production for example, even if the broadcast is restricted to the region in which it is produced. In this latter regard, the BBC falls short of meeting these commitments in a number of regions, but particularly in Northern Ireland.

  8.  In Northern Ireland the BBC has the capacity to produce both excellent news and current affairs (due in part to the unique history of the province) but also high-quality drama. However, many such programmes are made elsewhere, including in England and the Republic of Ireland. This problem is compounded by Ulster TV, which does not seek to make any original drama, comedy or entertainment.

  9.  In response to this state of affairs Equity is working with Government on an initiative to try and bring about a renaissance of cultural life in Northern Ireland. Equity has suggested that the Northern Ireland Office takes a central role in convening a conference of key representatives in the arts and entertainment sector. This would include Equity members, major broadcasters like the BBC and Ulster TV, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Films and Television Commission, local authorities, key theatres and theatre companies.

  10.  The purpose would be to achieve a genuine upsurge in cultural activity across the performing arts in Northern Ireland, which would not only benefit Equity members but improve the quality of life for its people. However, any conference would not be an end in itself, but be the beginning of a cultural transformation, leading to specific plans that would create a lasting legacy through the associated economic, social and political benefits. We would be grateful if members of the Committee would consider lending their support to this initiative.

THE BBC WORLD SERVICE

  11.  Equity supports the continuing and important role of the BBC World Service as a key source of information and entertainment for citizens around the globe. However, it has expressed its regret at the decision that has been made to axe the popular and award-winning soap "Westway", which has been a flagship drama of the BBC World Service since 1997.

  12.  The BBC Director General Mark Thompson has stated that the BBC planned to "foster audience understanding of differences of ethnicity, faith, gender, sexuality, age and ability or disability, by accurately and sensitively reflecting modern Britain's diversity across our programmes and opening up the BBC itself to talent from every community". Equity applauds and supports this view and would say that Westway encapsulates the true meaning of this statement and extends it to the world.

  13.  Westway offers a contemporary view of Britain. It has a diverse group of writers and an equally diverse cast where Asian, African, Nigerian, West Indian and Chinese Artists play lead roles. Its excellence achieved the Commission for Racial Equality Award for best soap, against contenders such as Eastenders and Coronation Street.

  14.  The award-winning soap has included issues, not only important here in the UK but across the world. It provides a discussion forum for people in some countries where these issues are relevant but may not normally be part of the national conversation. It is not only an example of public service broadcasting at its best but also forms a fundamental part of the BBC World service by tackling major issues and presenting them in a drama format. For these reasons Equity has argued for the continuation of the only major drama carried on the World Service.

THE BBC AS COMMISIONER VERSUS BROADCASTER

  15.  Equity believes that the future of public service broadcasters such as the BBC must lie as a producer and commissioner of high-quality and challenging news programmes, but also as a broadcaster that is able to make these programmes available to audiences across a range of new and existing platforms.

  16.  The specific reference within the Green Paper to the BBC's responsibility to serve UK audiences by "providing more original programming (not repeated or bought-in) than any other broadcaster" (para 1.24) can be met satisfactorily only by continuing to develop its activities across these key competencies.

  17.  The changes in technology must not be used as a justification to downgrade the BBC, from its position as cornerstone of public service broadcasting, into either just another platform provider or purely into a content commissioner. Its future survival depends on its strength in both these areas—as well as retaining the critical mass which it has built up in respect of its own production capacity.

  18.  There will be a symbiotic relationship between the delivery of digital television and the huge range of material available in future, with the expansion of different platforms which can be used to access this material. Therefore the more material that is available on new platforms the more it will encourage the take up of broadband and its use as a platform for viewing television programmes or as a download mechanism. Similarly mobile phones with 3G capability will also benefit.

  19.  Conversely, Equity would hope that the availability of these platforms can create an environment where the broadcasters will innovate and offer high-quality original production as well as new products and services, in order to keep attracting the increasingly fragmented audience.

  20.  Equity is ready to work with the broadcasters in developing these new and different platforms and has sought to ensure that content can be made available for use on these platforms when made under Equity collective agreements. To that end Equity has agreed a trial with the BBC for the use of such work during the trial of its interactive Media Player (iMP). We are also in discussion with other broadcasters and producers about long-term arrangements for the engagement of performers on Equity agreements and the subsequent use of that material.

  21.  Nevertheless, it is the role of Equity to ensure that the rights of artists are protected and that they are rewarded appropriately for the future exploitation of work.

  22.  We are also concerned about the question posed by Government in the Green Paper regarding the commissioning of programmes by the BBC, which is based on the unquestioning assumption that independent production must be increased. It is implied directly that the independent sector of TV and radio producers are somehow being handicapped by a restrictive market and that "fairer competition" and the public interest is somehow equivalent to greater independent production. This is confirmed by the further consideration of mandatory quotas for external commissioning, as is being proposed by PACT, the trade body with a vested interest in increasing these quotas on behalf of its members.

  23.  The UK now has an extremely strong and vibrant independent television production sector with an estimated annual turnover of £1.4 billion. Equity supports the opportunity for the independants to have a "fair chance" and many of our members are employed in excellent programmes made by these very organisations. However the sector is large and increasingly concentrated with the largest 5 per cent of companies making 80 per cent of the programmes. These "super-indies" are increasingly dominant and this trend appears likely to continue, with further consolidation and reorganisation. This centralisation of the main independants has also been accompanied by improved rights and terms of trade in their favour. Therefore we would raise serious questions about the assumption that independants require further special consideration.

CONNECTING TO THE LICENCE FEE PAYER

  24.  The improved openness and accountability that is being proposed in the Green Paper is also welcome. Greater transparency has been the theme of a number of reviews and investigations of the BBC and its governance, including Lord Burns and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

  25.  Therefore the concept of webcasting of meetings of the Trust, the publication of detailed minutes, research and voting records are all welcome improvements that will help retain the confidence of licence fee payers, as well as those employed by the BBC. External and independent appraisal should also be part of this process, so that stakeholders and licence fee players can submit their views on members of the Trust.

  26.  These changes can only assist in making the BBC a more open and accessible organisation. However it must also be aware of the dangers of being vulnerable to organised but unrepresentative groups who may seek to impose their views at the expense of the majority. Such groups should not be allowed to dictate programme policy by curbing artistic integrity or freedom of expression.

  27.  The scrutiny of BBC spending is another matter that should be addressed primarily by the BBC Trust in a more open and transparent way than in the past. Accountability for how licence fee money is spent also continues to be available through the National Audit Office (NAO). We understand the concerns expressed by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons in its report on BBC funding in February 2005, which considered a greater role for the NAO. While we do not see a compelling case to review these arrangements at the present time, the scale of organisational change that is taking place at the BBC may strengthen the argument for NAO to provide further scrutiny in the coming years. Therefore this matter should be kept under review.

  28.  Membership of the Trust is also of crucial importance, if it is to be truly accountable for the activity of the BBC and be an effective custodian of the licence fee. Therefore we believe that it is vital for the Trust to include members with creative and artistic experience and able to represent the views of those who are employed or engaged by the BBC, as well as the FTSE 100 corporate specialists that the BBC and the Government have indicated will be required. We also support the provision of professional and expert staff to enable members of the Trust conduct the necessary scrutiny of BBC operations.

  29.  We would also wish to see members of the BBC Trust able to address its public interest responsibilities in other ways. In particular, we would wish to see the Trust show greater willingness to engage with those who work for the BBC than was demonstrated by the Board of Governors. The recent transposition into UK legislation of the Information and Consultation Directive (Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations 2004) will mean that from April 2005 employees in organisations with 150 or more employees have a right to be informed and consulted on a regular basis about issues in the organisation they work for. This should include employees being consulted on strategic decision making with bodies such as the BBC Trust.

CONCLUSION

  30.  We welcome the extended inquiry being conducted by the Lords Committee and are pleased to have the opportunity to register our further response to aspects of the Government's Green Paper on the future of the BBC. While the stability of licence fee funding is welcome for the period of this Charter, there are clearly serious issues which will need to be addressed in the coming years. The debate over funding methods will continue to be particularly contentious, especially as we move towards the decisions over the future level of the licence fee and the consideration of alternative or additional funding mechanisms.

  31.  We hope that the Committee will take note of our views on these matters, as well as our immediate and ongoing concern about the ability of the BBC to meet the challenge of high quality original programming in an environment of 15 per cent across-the-board budget cuts.

7 October 2005



 
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