Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)

TUESDAY 22 NOVEMBER 2005

Mr Pat Loughrey, Mr Mark Thomas and Mr Martin Brooks

  Q580  Bishop of Manchester: Can we look at the situation here with the BBC in Manchester as it is now and then how it might be when the moves are made. I know that when you showed us the little film extract before you did some of this but if we could have for the sake of the public record now information about what is broadcast from here, including on radio and television networks as well as regional. Please also go on to say what is going to be changed when the rest come.

  Mr Brooks: I will give you a thumbnail sketch of what is here at the moment. About 800 staff work in this building. There are three main network production bases here: BBC Manchester Entertainment, which I mentioned this morning with programmes like Mastermind, Question of Sport; the BBC's Religion and Ethics Department is based here with Songs of Praise, Moral Maze, Thought for the Day; and network current affairs which produce Real Story, File on Four and the like. Then there are several network radio teams based here as well. There is a factual radio unit which does weekly editions of You and Yours, Women's Hour, Front Row from here. Then there is the BBC Radio Three unit and a BBC entertainment unit which does a lot of Radio Four quiz programming from here. Then there is Radio drama which produces about 60 hours of drama a year. Then on top of that, as we are in their studio, I should mention there is the BBC Philharmonic. The total hours for the network production from this centre are 243 hours of network television a year, 1,107 hours of network radio and, of course, we have got the regional output from here, North West Tonight and the BBC GMR which serves the Greater Manchester area, and the hours for them are 342 hours of regional television. That is made up of news, current affairs, political output and sports output. Then 6,752 hours of local radio through BBC GMR. We have mentioned earlier on the departments that are coming and they will transform this place. They are heavy hitting departments for the BBC: sport with all its sports output; children's with its two channels CBBC and CBeebies; all the new media departments, including research and development, due to be coming up here; children's learning; and Five Live. There will be a massive amount of production and we reckon it is £225 million worth of production that will be coming here to Manchester.

  Q581  Bishop of Manchester: Thank you very much for that very full answer. Can I ask you now about the previous occasion when a department came here and that is the Religion and Ethics Department. Nothing to do with my particular role as a Bishop it is simply wanting to know from the professional BBC point of view if I have my facts correct. My understanding is that the move of that department here to Manchester was perhaps thought out in a way which was not quite as fully thought out as it might have been and that that department was in a sense disadvantaged by, if you like, being away from the corridors of power and commissioning and all those sorts of things. I use that simply as an example. Without going into that particular aspect, can you give an assurance on the ways in which these other departments are coming that those kinds of difficulties will not be faced by them? If your answer to that is no that will not happen, you could then perhaps go back to this other department and say will things therefore improve for them.

  Mr Brooks: Religion moved up here at the same time as entertainment features. I do not think there was a natural synergy between those two departments necessarily. They moved at the same time but they do not make natural bed fellows, I would contend.

  Bishop of Manchester: We could have a debate on that!

  Q582  Chairman: Please do not, not on this Committee.

  Mr Brooks: I think we have learnt lessons from the move of religion. I think it is significant that there is commissioning power within those departments that are moving up now and they have their own dedicated output. I think that is a significant change from when religion moved up to Manchester. I was not here at the time but I have talked to people that were involved in that move. They have talked about some of the difficulties that there were and we will take those into account in anything we do moving forward with the departments as they are going to come up.

  Mr Loughrey: As we did some research for this work maybe 18 months ago we talked to a former Head of Religious Programmes who said the problem with that set of incredibly well-intentioned moves was that we tended to shift supplicants and leave the power base exactly as it has been. The supplicants have thrived in religion and ethics in many ways. There is a very solid production base and I do not want to be seen to cast aspersions but it heightened the degree of difficulty for a production department. These new proposals are largely about self-commissioning teams—children's education, Five Live, sport, children's programmes—which all carry their budgets and their production teams. It is that sense of rounded security and relative strength in the market that gives them a base. I am convinced that that will provide advantages for religion and ethics and for entertainment and for current affairs here. There is a strength and solidarity in the Manchester base that comes from that scale of investment and the opportunities and the technology that we envisage will benefit all departments, including those here already.

  Q583  Bishop of Manchester: The people in sports and other departments in London are now utterly reassured that if they were to come to Manchester then all the kinds of things you have just been describing will be firmly in place?

  Mr Loughrey: I think the one thing that Mark Thompson has repeatedly said is there is a vision and there are not some teams or production areas that will slip off the back of the truck on the way north. We thought this through and we believe these are entirely complementary teams and they are groups that will reengineer the architecture of the business. He is completely committed, as is the Chairman Michael Grade, to the totality of the vision. In terms of reassurance in terms of individuals, one has to say that ideally the BBC should not have to engineer such an extreme correction at one time but such is the change in the commercial broadcasting market across the UK there is a sense of urgency, such is the strength of our own audience data to indicate that such correction is necessary. We would have preferred to have had a smaller disruption to the private and professional lives of colleagues, but this is quite different. However, I have to say five years is a long time in a very fluid industry.

  Q584  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Can I just go back to this point about commissioning power. Are we talking about Mr Mosey for instance moving up here?

  Mr Loughrey: Yes.

  Q585  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: So it is the whole department from top to bottom?

  Mr Loughrey: Yes.

  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Thank you very much.

  Q586  Lord Maxton: Although the move here of national departments is obviously the prime concern at the moment, to some extent what we are looking at is regional broadcasting and the role of the BBC within that, therefore I am interested in the hours. Do you do more hours than Granada of regional broadcasting?

  Mr Brooks: I would have thought we did now because we do sports programmes in addition to our daily news service which is about a mirror of their daily news service. We also do current affairs and political output. They do political output and some current affairs. We do a fair amount of sports output mainly centred around Rugby League—after all, this is the heartland of Rugby League. We do two programmes concerning Rugby League. We do the Super League Show which goes out on a Sunday lunchtime and then we do Rugby League Raw, which is the programme to which Sue alluded. It is not an ITV programme; we actually produce it. We put it out, it is our programme.

  Q587  Lord Maxton: We received a complaint from Scottish Rugby Union, about Rangers and Celtic. They thought BBC Scotland was entirely about that and nothing else. What will be the impact on that broadcasting of moving these national departments up here? Is it likely to distract you from that role or are you going to keep them separated so that this building will remain as the regional broadcaster?

  Mr Loughrey: I believe no, the vision is that this site will no longer be occupied and that the entire BBC operation will be alongside other parts of the whole media community in that media village. I think that career paths will be broader and higher than ever before outside London and hence the professional opportunities for people in regional and local programmes will be significantly enhanced. Local radio and regional television news have been traditional recruitment territory for the whole of broadcasting from its inception. This formalises that opportunity and makes it possible without always moving within the M25.

  Q588  Lord Maxton: Can I move it down one then. What about local television rather than just regional television? Be honest, a major car accident in Manchester is not of much interest to someone in Carlisle, so are you looking at that to see how you can bring news and current affairs closer?

  Mr Loughrey: Let me just return to your earlier question. I believe that the BBC still produces marginally less overall output in English regions than ITV but, as you are well aware, ITV are rapidly diminishing their level of non-news output in the regions from three hours to one and a half, with a plan to reduce that further if Ofcom permits. We decided that rather than fill that vacuum directly we should do exactly as you describe and provide television news that is as local as our local radio provision in England and a great deal more local than we have ever been able to provide in the three nations. All of the audience indicators tell us that that is very much sought after by our large audiences. In a sense it is providing broadband on demand television news. In our Where I Live sites across the United Kingdom we have experienced remarkable growth in the five years of our existence. They are still a text-based service. When Philip Graf conducted the DCMS review he was somewhat critical of the character of local sites for having such a text-based service when we are in the business of sound and pictures and not text. We have taken that challenge and propose to create 60 strong local television on-line on-demand news services across the UK as a parallel initiative with us. We believe that in that welter of choice in multi-channel television the one choice that is sadly lacking is news about your community, and we can deliver it. There is a pilot happening in the West Midlands about to begin to test that proposition.

  Q589  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: As you know, in our first report we recommended sharing centres of regional excellence. You obviously have had discussions with local production companies about sharing resources. Could you fill us in about how these have gone and whether, in your view, a major move like the one that might happen up here will contribute to the initiatives throughout the country?

  Mr Thomas: In terms of a shared set of resources we absolutely endorse that view. Essentially that is what the media zone is predicated on. I think it goes a stage further than was originally intended when people began talking about it and I think this is why a level of granularity is quite important. It is possible to see a synergy, for example, between ourselves being in Manchester and ITV Granada. When you actually explore what that is in reality, the area of sharing is probably pretty much around a studio business. So we use television studios, they use television studios. If you look at the breadth of our proposition in terms of bringing radio up, they do not do radio; in terms of our learning division, they do not do that; the R&D aspect that the BBC does; our on-line stuff. So, yes, we are for sharing but it has got to involve the right partners, which is why I was delighted when the RDA and the councils were beginning to talk about Microsoft. It is companies like that we have been talking to them about. We have been saying that if the BBC brings up this range of propositions it would allow the media zone to create multiple interfaces with multiple businesses. There are lots of opportunities for interfaces with this proposition. Potentially you are talking about BBC Sport, on television, on radio and on-line. Given the proactive way the NWDA and councils are behaving, it is perfectly possible to imagine they would set about trying to attract sporting organisations as well on the back of this move. So I think yes to shared resources, but we are talking about multiple interfaces and that is why I urged that note of caution earlier on. We should not just be looking at a partnership that is rooted in the delivery of current content by current media players. We are talking about a move that is five years away. We are talking about a move that is for the long-term future of the BBC. We call the services moving here the "services of the future" and we are looking at that media zone proposition as something that is going to be viable in 20 or 30 years' time. You yourselves know how dramatically the broadcasting business is going to change. As the Chairman himself mentioned today, with the changes under the Communications Act the stability of those partners in that relationship is also crucial. So we are looking for a broad range of partners rather than a narrow arranged marriage.

  Q590  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I think what I was trying to get at, perhaps rather badly, is if what is being proposed up here, or wherever it happens, with all these multi benefits works (albeit five years on goodness only knows what has happened in that time) would this not make it easier for the more limited regional get-togethers to operate?

  Mr Thomas: In a word, Lady Howe, yes, it is a model.

  Q591  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I would have thought so.

  Mr Loughrey: There are interesting signs in Scotland at our new Pacific Quay site of collaborative ventures. It does not make much sense for two broadcasting organisations to own two separate studios both of which are dark for 75 per cent of their time. It does not make much sense in public value terms to have separate restaurants and separate security. There might well be opportunities in various centres around the country to have a more collaborative approach. Quite frankly, that is how the talent has moved over the decades across providers. I do not think the audience see it as necessarily opposite and in the regional centres we have a great deal in common with local radio, commercial radio and ITV. There is a fraternity of commitment to those communities and that should be reflected in the most cost-effective possible use of resources.

  Q592  Chairman: But if there is a chance or a prospect, just going back on what Mark Thomas was saying, of ITV being taken over, it must act as a bit of a disincentive for your partnership ambitions?

  Mr Thomas: Being completely clear about this, when we went back to the Governors we presented them with three scenarios. We said we can do what the BBC always does which is to stand alone, we can do a joint venture with ITV, or we can do the media zone. The Governors were very clear that the joint venture with ITV, while producing some benefits, did not produce the benefits on anything like the scale we are talking about, and the media zone is the model they have asked us to pursue, with a fall-back option of a stand alone option if that does not work. So you are absolutely right, but what we are saying to all the media zone operators for us in the context in which you set it out, ITV being a tenant on the media zone is neither a deal maker nor a deal breaker for us. The issue is really for the operator of the media zone—the councils, the NWDA—to attract whoever they feel they need to attract to that location. It is slightly complicated by the fact that ITV is one of the potential sites so not surprisingly their current position is they would only want to be part of the media zone on their own site. As I indicated, this is a complex set of negotiations and I am sure we will end up in a sensible place.

  Mr Loughrey: Of course we will warmly welcome ITV. We are very keen to collaborate with ITV where it makes sense.

  Q593  Chairman: I am sure you are but that was not entirely my point. My point was if there is a question mark over future ownership, you have to take that into account.

  Mr Loughrey: The issue of the stability of partners is a critical thing in assessing any collaborative venture and the media zone has the opportunity within it for more dexterity.

  Chairman: I can see that and understand that.

  Q594  Lord Peston: Pursuing again the reasons for the move, I ought to apologise to you, I had taken it for granted that the reason for the move was to save costs and that all the other benefits were by-products. Your argument is no it is the other benefits that matter and if there are any costs savings they will be the by product. Am I correct in my interpretation?

  Mr Loughrey: The proposition we brought to the Governors was based on the benefit to licence payers.

  Q595  Lord Peston: Let us look at the benefits. There are two aspects that I would like to hear a bit more on. One is the general point that arose this morning that there will be better services broadly as a result of this. To take sport as an example, sports broadcasting will simply be better sports broadcasting. That is one bit of your argument, I assume. The other is this point, which I must admit I do not understand but you again seem to accept it, that somehow broadcasting is dominated by metropolitan values, by which I presume they mean South East values, and somehow it will now become much more Lancastrian. Is that my correct interpretation? If there is such a thing as Lancastrian values they are going to be the ones that now get a fair play? Again, it is really for enlightenment I ask the question, and I put it in my usual aggressive way: really what are the benefits?

  Mr Loughrey: I will start with the last bit first and then Mark will discuss sport. I think it cannot be right that 99 per cent of the BBC's commissioning happens in one place in the United Kingdom. In any sense of equity the people who make the critical decisions about what we hear on air and what we see on television all walk the same streets, not just in London but in two boroughs in London really. It is a very lopsided proposition. That was tenable perhaps when the rest of the broadcasting ecology was different when the key decisions in commercial television were made right across the country. That is no longer the case. The key decisions made in commercial broadcasting are now also made in those same two or three boroughs. They are going to the same restaurants, going to the same theatres, walking the same streets, reading the same books. It is a very, very narrow social and intellectual environment. It is very difficult to sustain that in a world where we collect a licence fee on every street. It is very difficult to review briefly the extraordinarily creative voice, despite that lopsidedness, of this part of the UK. It is not about a Lancastrian equivalent to Chiswick. It is about Manchester being a creative hub for the whole of the North of England, just as Cardiff is charged with being the creative hub for the whole of Wales. If this project works in Manchester alone then it will have failed. We have to achieve a degree of creative interpretation and creative engagement with audiences across the whole of the North of England which has evaded us in the past. The evidence of talent, of writing and performing skills that is evident here gives us every good cause to be hopeful that we can achieve that.

  Q596  Lord Peston: Could we just pursue that because I am still completely lost. I speak entirely as a viewer and listener. I am not very clear what I get that is different if it is made here. Everything you say about the creative talent here and all those other things, great universities, all that is here. However, I do not see what ends up other than the possibility which arose this morning that I might hear some Lancashire accents on telly rather than my own accent, which I am in favour of let me add, but it is not the biggest deal I could imagine. Will I get better plays and will I get better documentaries if they are commissioned up here?

  Mr Thomas: I think at the end of the day the specific point here is that programmes are made by people.

  Q597  Lord Peston: Yes.

  Mr Thomas: And the more diverse that group of people the better the BBC's offering. That has been our experience. Having production, as Pat says, in Scotland and Wales and across the country and at the centres in Bristol and Birmingham and indeed Manchester currently, it is a richer mix than if everybody were located in the same place with the same sets of views, because at the end of the day programmes start with ideas and ideas are sparked by a whole different range of life experiences. So I think something of this considerable size that we are talking about would allow people to spend one or two stages of their career in another centre other than London working for the BBC. We had a tape this morning of talent who were basically saying how they had to leave the area in order to go and make programmes in London and how it was offensive, frankly, that they had to do that. In a way, you have also heard from Granada how a lot of those ideas were routed through them and denied to the BBC as a result of that. I think the BBC underperforms in the North of England not simply because there are not enough Lancastrian voices but because the thing that makes this part of the world the way it is not necessarily there in sufficient critical mass within the BBC to find its way through the system.

  Mr Loughrey: Shall I try a small example which you may or may not find persuasive. In popular drama there are three dominant popular dramas—Eastenders, Casualty and Holby City—all concentrated in the south of this country. When we decided some years ago to have another popular drama it went so far south it came off this island and ended up in Spain, called Eldorado. There is a gravitational feel in the BBC and indeed increasingly now in the whole broadcasting industry that sucks everything rapidly south and that denies to this part of the world the creative opportunity that the licence fee gives as their right, and all that I have done throughout my career, and what all of us in broadcasting do, is creative acts of faith, taking opportunities and investing where we believe the opportunities exist. For years drama from BBC Wales was regarded as a joke. Drama from Wales in general was regarded as the bottom of the creative pile. We made a few creative decisions on risks with BBC Wales drama and out of it we have Dr Who and Casanova. We believe that talent is, without doubt, here to deliver at the highest end, not obsessed by provincialism and parochialism but at the highest level in the broadcasting world, and it is for that reason the diversity Mark described is essential to a healthy creative life. We believe this centre will permit us that opportunity.

  Q598  Lord Maxton: Yes, I understand that. If that is what you are about, that is fine. The problem is what you initially described, Pat, was essentially saying the idea of moving the programmes here was so the programmes would be attractive to people in the North, but if you are bringing national programme makers here, they have not just got to appeal to people in the North, they have got to appeal right across the whole of the country.

  Mr Loughrey: That is my Dr Who argument.

  Q599  Lord Maxton: But Dr Who could be made anywhere. It is not a Welsh drama programme, it is not about Wales.

  Mr Loughrey: It was written by a very proud Welshman and produced by some very proud Welshmen.


 
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