Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

Memorandum by The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland


  The NSPCI welcomes the broadly-based nature of the Government's consultations on Charter Review and the meetings and research which have taken place in Northern Ireland as part of this work. It is encouraged by the Green Paper's commitment to the BBC's continuing role as a large-scale broadcaster focussed exclusively on the public interest and its independence from political, commercial and sectional considerations. We recognise the important role played by the BBC at local level and its contribution to the social, cultural and economic life of our region. It will be essential to maintain the breadth and effectiveness of this activity over the next Charter period and for the BBC to reflect the diversity of life in Northern Ireland in both its local and Network programming. We believe that our region should be more fully reflected in the BBC's UK-wide television and radio schedules and welcome assurances that the volume of such material will increase considerably as part of the new Charter settlement. In all of this, it will be important to maintain the distinctiveness and quality of the BBC's output and for its activities to be clearly aligned with the public purposes and characteristics outlined in the Green Paper and also for the Corporation's performance against these criteria to be monitored in a consistently rigorous, robust and transparent manner.

  Ensuring that the BBC fulfils its public purposes and potential and developing its accountability to licence payers will be key responsibilities for the BBC Trust. The latter's credibility and effectiveness will depend on the skills and diversity of its members and their understanding of the needs, circumstances and characteristics of the BBC's audiences across the UK. In this respect we believe that it will be critically important for the next Charter to include provision for full and mandatory Northern Ireland representation on the BBC Trust (consistent with arrangements in place since 1952 for the appointment of a BBC National Governor for Northern Ireland). We are concerned about the ambiguity of the Green Paper's commitments in respect of nations' representation on the BBC Trust and believe that this is a fundamental issue for the new Charter. It will also be important to make adequate provision for Accountability structures at more local level and for the powers and responsibilities of the Broadcasting Council to be enhanced, to include the development of its advisory role in respect of BBC Network programming and other aspects of the Corporation's work.

  We agree with the Green Paper's statement that the BBC should reflect all aspects of the UK's diversity in both its mainstream and specialist programmes and welcome Government's view that the BBC should "provide a range of programming reflecting different religions" and that such output should include acts of worship alongside current affairs, drama and other programmes which explore issues of religion and ethics from different perspectives and for a range of different audiences. Maintaining the quality, volume and prominence of such output and developing its appeal for a generalist audience should be key priorities for the BBC over the coming period. We believe that such output should adequately reflect the traditions, activities and beliefs of smaller Christian denominations and faith communities and that the BBC should be more pro-active in its engagement with these communities as part of its work to respond to the diverse and changing nature of local and wider UK society.

  We note the increasing availability and use of digital television and radio and believe that audiences in Northern Ireland should have full and equitable access to BBC services across the full range of existing/developing delivery platforms and suggest that Government should give careful consideration to the needs of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in the implementation of its plans for digital switchover. We note that Northern Ireland may be the last UK national region to become "fully digital" and will wish to understand the criteria that will guide phasing of this process and to seek assurances that local communities will not be disadvantaged by the schedule for analogue switch-off.

  In summary, we broadly welcome the Green Paper's proposals for the future of the BBC and its emphasis on the need for the BBC to remain "a cultural institution of real size and scope" with clearly defined public purposes/characteristics and a commitment to reflecting the diversity of the UK in its structure, programme-making activity and output. We believe that it will be important for new BBC Accountability arrangements to safeguard and build upon the best elements of existing practice and for this to include full Northern Ireland representation on the BBC Trust (and all/any other UK-wide bodies established to represent licence payers interests) and an enhanced role for the local Broadcasting Council. Appointments to the latter should be publicly advertised and independently audited, consistent with OCPA guidelines and practice, and should seek to ensure that the composition of the Council remains broadly reflective of Northern Ireland society.

  We look forward to receiving the Department's views on these issues and hope that our concerns and recommendations will inform its work in developing the White Paper and new Charter document.

27 April 2005

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