Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 614)


Mr Pat Loughrey, Mr Mark Thomas and Mr Martin Brooks

  Q600  Lord Maxton: That is not the point I am making. The point I am making is it is not a Welsh drama programme in the way that Rab C Nesbitt was a Scottish comedy programme which was actually very popular even though large numbers of people in London could not understand a single word of what was being said! You have got to make it clear that if you are doing regional broadcasting you can base your programmes on the region but if you are broadcasting national programmes they have got to appeal to where that largest proportion of the population resides which is, unfortunately, in the South East of England.

  Mr Loughrey: I think we sometimes underestimate the dexterity and openness of the audience. There is no more authentic voice of this part of the world in contemporary comedy than Peter Kay. He plays (sadly often on the other side) to a very strong audience right across the United Kingdom. Quality wins. Billy Connolly is compelling, Max Boyce in his day was compelling, Peter Kay in this day and age speaks to audiences wherever they are. A lot of it has to do with social demographics and class issues as well.

  Q601  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: As you said at the beginning, certain types of programmes are being moved up here—sport, new media, children's programmes. You have also talked a lot about ideas. Is there not a concern that the BBC will be reduced to just producing those types of programmes and that the more idea-led type of programmes like the drama and so on will be driven out of this area of the BBC, this region?

  Mr Thomas: I do not think so. I think the opposite could happen. At the moment when the BBC produces drama here, a significant number of crew actually come up from London because there is not a sustainable production base here of sufficient size and scale to actually keep people living in the region. Obviously there are some but not enough. Potentially with the model we are describing now there is going to be that sustainable production community across us, across ITV, and across the independent sector. I think, if anything, if this works in the way we are talking about, it is going to attract more production here, not less.

  Q602  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: As a witness earlier said to us, there is a problem of "out of sight out of mind". He was asking for a channel to move here because for certain types of television you still need to be in that bit of London where everybody is eating in the same restaurants and reading the same books.

  Mr Thomas: I think I tend to agree with I think it was Lord Peston who said that if you are the commissioner you are chasing the really good talent wherever it is. Frankly, what you do not want is the best programmes to end up on the other side. Whether you are an independent or whether you are a programme maker in an in-house department, there is this view that even if technology would allow you to communicate with a commissioner down a bit of wire, you need to be in the same room breathing the same air. I think that is a comfort zone. I think it is also how buying and selling is done. You are always going to get those people wanting to travel to each other. Nobody ever has enough time with commissioners, particularly the channel controllers. There are only 24 hours in any day and there are hundreds of companies which would all like to have lots of time with them. I think everybody always feels aggrieved in that situation. I think in terms of what we are proposing here, as we have indicated, we have brought two children's channels here and a channel of radio. They have commissioning power and the commissioning power is based here so that side of things is going to work. Even if you moved another commissioner and that meant somebody did not have to travel up here, then a number of people in London or Glasgow would still have to travel to Manchester. There is no way of being omnipresent in this kind of scenario.

  Q603  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Just a final question, and maybe this is to Mr Loughrey, why were these particular activities chosen to move here? Is it both radio and television that are moving?

  Mr Loughrey: Yes to the second part and if I could connect your previous question with this one. Children's television is a marvellous opportunity because it is multi genre. It includes drama, documentaries, features and news, with Newsround. It builds the industry across the genres, albeit for a very specific audience. It therefore is real nutrition to the industry and provides a core brief but (and Mark used it earlier) the vision we had and the simple sentence we used to describe it was "audiences and services of the future". It is not difficult to spot the complementarity between new media, learning and Five Live, for example, and children's programmes. They connect in a particular way, a direct inter-section with the audience. Five Live is the most interactive of our radio stations connected to audiences and it is of course a very natural bed fellow for sport, which in turn is pioneering new forms of technology in outside broadcasts for example and research and development. Career paths are clear across them and there is a connectivity. I believe also that together they can form not just the basis of a thriving internal ecology but be part of a very strong external ecology.

  Q604  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Picking up on sport, is there a problem about the fact that we got the Olympics and they are going to be in London?

  Mr Loughrey: I do not think so. I think we managed to cover the Commonwealth Games in Manchester without moving the department for that and the Olympic Games in Beijing without moving the department for that. I think those glorious couple of months, if it is that long, will be easily covered from a base wherever it is.

  Q605  Chairman: You said a very interesting thing, Mark Thomas. You said basically, as I understood you, that Manchester is not self-sufficient for staff which is rather contrary to what was being indicated this morning.

  Mr Thomas: For drama. When the BBC comes up here with a major drama production, and it is certainly backed up by North West Vision because they talk to us about it all the time, there are not the crews and everything rooted here in the locality and available because there is not enough work.

  Q606  Chairman: That is interesting. It was not quite the flavour I got from the evidence earlier this morning.

  Mr Loughrey: Over the next months, maybe years, I think we could see a significant shift in BBC drama's mass full-time engagement with this part of England. The controller of television drama has said publicly that there is a cost premium to producing network dramas in the North of England for the reasons that Mark has described. Recurring dramas like Coronation Street of course have their own dedicated facilities but for the occasional six-part series or one-parter it is quite difficult to find the mobile resources to deliver those. They do tend to cost a premium. We need permanent production to sustain a total base.

  Q607  Chairman: What is the total staff employed by the BBC in the United Kingdom? Does anyone know?

  Mr Loughrey: 24,000. We have just experienced a value-for-money exercise which reduced that number significantly.

  Q608  Chairman: And how many are employed outside London?

  Mr Loughrey: 6,000 within my division of the Nations and the Regions, and then a further—and I need to come back to you on these numbers—probably couple of thousand in the network production centres, this one, Bristol and Birmingham.

  Q609  Chairman: So it is heavily London-centred at the moment?

  Mr Loughrey: Yes.

  Q610  Chairman: And in Manchester we have got 1,200?

  Mr Thomas: 800.

  Mr Brooks: 760.

  Q611  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Unlike the ITV Granada answer, when you say staff are you are also counting in people on long-term contracts?

  Mr Loughrey: On long-term contracts, not short-term.

  Chairman: These are people who are permanently employed, these are not the people you hire in?

  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: They do include long-term contracts.

  Q612  Lord Peston: Long-term contracts is just a tax dodge, is it not?

  Mr Loughrey: It depends how you describe freelance staff.

  Lord Peston: That is what I have just described them as.

  Chairman: We are almost at our end because we need to get our plane to Belfast, so long as the fog permits. Has anybody got any further questions? Lord Maxton?

  Q613  Lord Maxton: The only question I would like to ask is I did screw my face up a little when Mark said 25 or 30 years down the line. In the modern world, that is being really, I would have thought, optimistic if you can forecast the future that far ahead. Most of us now are at the point—I am being a technical nut—of putting off buying almost anything because I know it will be cheaper and newer and better six months down the line.

  Mr Thomas: I think you are absolutely right, that is why we are seeking the partners, in terms of the media zone, who are the most forward-thinking because you are right an element of this is about flexibility, which is why we do have some nervousness, and I know you touched on it earlier, around the 3sixty model. Those studios are already as old as our studios in London. That is not necessarily where we need to be going. You only have to look at how production is moving away more and more from studios to on location, so I think it is about creating the right media zone with the right people running it with the right vision that allows us to be future-proofed over 25 years. You are right that is not about knowing what it is going to be like in 25 years' time but it is having the right people in the media zone that are going to keep refreshing it and be focused on the future.

  Q614  Chairman: That seems to me a very appropriate point at which to stop. Thank you very much indeed all of you for your evidence which was very clear and very interesting and thank you also for the discussions that we have had before this meeting for which we are very grateful indeed. Perhaps if we have any other questions we could send them to you.

  Mr Loughrey: And I will come back to you, if I may, with more precise answers on the numbers.

  Mr Thomas: We will come back to Baroness Howe on the link between why it is a third on one and a half on the other.

  Chairman: We wish you good luck in your negotiations.

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