Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)


Professor Fabian Monds, Ms Anna Carragher, Mr Pat Loughrey and Reverend Rick Hill

  Q620  Chairman: Obviously as I listened this morning one could hear the traditional political divides. Do you have any figures on how the religious affiliations, if I can put it that way, break down?

  Ms Carragher: The religious affiliation of BBC Northern Ireland's workforce is profiled on a regular basis in accordance with the requirements of our Equal Opportunities legislation. BBC Northern Ireland's monitoring returns to the Equality Commission include freelance and contract staff in addition to those employed on permanent contracts and this means that the figures can look somewhat higher than those quoted for our full-time equivalent head count. The breakdown is 409 Protestant, 335 Catholic and 122 non-determined. That is a much higher proportion in non-determined than would be the case for most employers in Northern Ireland, which is largely due to the fact that we would employ more people who have come from other parts of the country. The breakdown, to give you percentages, from the Equality Commissions Monitoring Report No 14 Published in November 2004, is that excluding those whose religious or community background is non-determined, the composition of BBC Northern Ireland's workforce is 55% Protestant, 45% Roman Catholic.

  Q621  Chairman: That would also apply up and down the scale? For example, the number of producers, would that roughly be the same percentage?

  Ms Carragher: It would roughly be the same percentage, and there would be some individual variations.

  Q622  Chairman: That is a dramatic difference between now and where we were in, say, the 1960s when I first came to Ulster.

  Ms Carragher: Yes.

  Q623  Chairman: What would have been the position then?

  Ms Carragher: I do not have the exact figures and I can get back to you with them, but from memory they were roughly 90 per cent—10 per cent.

  Q624  Chairman: So that has been the revolution which has taken place inside.

  Ms Carragher: Yes.

  Q625  Chairman: My last question in introduction, the main challenge that you find, is it balance? You have a very politically aware local population who feel very strongly about various issues, so keeping the balance there must be quite difficult, even more difficult than in some parts of the rest of the United Kingdom.

  Ms Carragher: It is undoubtedly a challenge and a challenge in that there are far more political parties here than there are in the UK as a whole. Five larger parties and then when you go to smaller parties up to 11 or 12, and within those parties there are different wings as well, so you are balancing within parties in a greater number of parties with a very politically aware audience. So that is undoubtedly a challenge.

  Q626  Chairman: Do you have surveys which can show whether the BBC is accepted as being fair and balanced?

  Ms Carragher: Yes, we do. We carry out continual surveys. The last figures I was looking at on this, the number of people who felt that our output was biased was 18 per cent, which assumes that 82 per cent are satisfied with the impartiality of our coverage, or certainly do not feel we are biased. The levels of satisfaction with the service is very high; it is 78 per cent showing that they are satisfied.

  Q627  Chairman: Is there any difference between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom in satisfaction surveys?

  Mr Loughrey: There are approval indices, Chairman, across the UK. What Anna is quoting is a specific survey about Northern Ireland, so there are not benchmarks necessarily for that survey. But if you would like to see the approval indices I am sure we can send them to you subsequently.

  Q628  Lord Maxton: In this highly political world the Broadcasting Council must have a very important role to play, much more perhaps important than Broadcasting Councils elsewhere, would that be right?

  Professor Monds: The Broadcasting Council of Northern Ireland has all the same responsibilities that the Welsh and Scottish Broadcasting Councils have and the priority is to provide communications to management and to the Board of Governors on the way in which, in our case, BBC Northern Ireland is delivering an appropriate mix of programmes and is spending its budget appropriately, in our view, across the programme genres. But it is true that in Northern Ireland we have a somewhat more complex environment, not just because of the community and political considerations and history but also we have a somewhat unique broadcasting environment, in that Northern Ireland has for some time been a multi-channel analogue terrestrial environment with RTÉ transmitting to approximately 50 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland, and that is now available on D-Sat as well. So BBC Northern Ireland has a particular challenge to cope with that competition. I should have said at the beginning, Chairman, how pleased we are that you have chosen to bring the Committee to Northern Ireland and we are grateful for this opportunity of communication on that subject.

  Q629  Lord Maxton: When you are recruiting to the Council—and maybe this is in part a question to Reverend Hill as well—do you try to reflect the political religious divides in Northern Ireland? If I can be quite direct with you, do you feel that when you are on that Council you are representing the Presbyterian Church, or do you think you are on there as an individual representing the people of Northern Ireland?

  Professor Monds: If I could start and then Reverend Hill to come in. Just to outline the process, which is that the Lord Nolan principles are applied. We use external assessors and advertising and the invitation for applications is completely open. In deciding on individuals to join the Council, yes, attention is paid to the mix, but this cannot be a crude head count on a religious basis or indeed on an urban basis; the individuals' abilities, interests and backgrounds are all relevant. One thing we pay attention to is geography, in the sense that if we get a distribution of individuals across Northern Ireland that helps to ensure some degree of correlation with the proportional community distribution. But we have been very successful, I think, in getting balance and representation. We worry about such things as rural versus urban, the business community representation and the like. But you asked the Reverend Hill a direct question, so over to you, Rick.

  Reverend Hill: If I could comment and say that I believe the Broadcasting Council's role is to be listening and responding to the audience, to assist the BBC in understanding the local audience. Am I a representative of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland? I am not. I am first and foremost a licence payer who is an advocate for other licence payers. Of course I bring to that some skills and interests that would clearly be influenced by my own employment background and by my previous background as a physicist and the fact that I have been building computers since I was 16 years old, so I have a technology interest as well. I know from the mix in the Council that we have a diverse range of skills, interests, cultural backgrounds, sporting backgrounds, and actually I think that the Council is greater than the sum of its parts because of that eclectic mixture that we have. In its recruitment materials the BBC state that the Council's membership should reflect the diversity of the BBC's audience in Northern Ireland and should, consistent with the principle of appointment on merit, include people with different skills, interests, areas of expertise and backgrounds. The process is independently audited, it is publicly advertised, it is wide open and transparent. Details of all this are on our website, which seems to attract 10,000 to 12,000 people a month viewing it, so you can check that there for yourself and see that. Baroness Onora O'Neill said in her Reith Lectures in 2002 that "real accountability involves substantive and knowledgeable independent judgment of an institution's work by people who have sufficient time and experience to assess the evidence and report on it". I think that is what you have in the Councils.

  Q630  Lord Maxton: Could I ask one last question on this? It is not clear—and we did not actually recommend it ourselves—whether or not there will be governors from the nations on the Board of Governors in the future. What is your view on that?

  Professor Monds: Chairman, the BBC's response to the Green Paper was to argue quite explicitly for national representation on the new Trust, and I think that the arguments are strong for each of the nations and indeed it is proposed that the English National Forum, which does not have constitutional status at the moment, should be treated in the same way as the Broadcasting Councils. But I think that the track record of communication—and I would emphasise communication rather than representation—from National Governors in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been helpful. The relationship through the Broadcasting Councils with listeners and viewers in the nations is effective; there is obvious scope for improvement, but my personal view is that Northern Ireland deserves and requires representation at that level.

  Q631  Lord Maxton: If the devolved government is restored in Northern Ireland do you think they should have a role in the selection of that governor, in the sense that that would be a better way of ensuring accountability and so on?

  Professor Monds: The experience we have had in Scotland and Wales has been that the national governors have been able to represent the Board of Governors to the Assembly and the Parliament as required, and I think that gives a good level of accountability.

  Q632  Chairman: You have used the word a number of times, "representative" on the Board. All best corporate governance rules these days are that once you are on the Board your loyalty is to the Board. Are you there as the representative simply to stand up for the interests of Northern Ireland?

  Professor Monds: Certainly not. In fact, with regard to my particular interests, I have all the responsibilities, as all the national governors have, of any governor for oversight and the regulatory powers and responsibilities that all the governors have. I do carry a full workload of responsibilities within the Board of Governors. I have a particular interest in digital roll-out, and am charged with helping to monitor that objective. No, I think the present Charter is very clear on the way in which national governors are appointed, that they are full governors, and their relationship with the Broadcasting Council. I think I used the term "representation" in a broad sense in that Northern Ireland would retain, as would Scotland and Wales, the same level of visibility and profile within the United Kingdom arrangements.

  Q633  Chairman: If a decision came before you that pointed to extra resources going to Manchester you would not actually feel that you had to argue the case for Northern Ireland at every Board meeting?

  Professor Monds: It is never as simple as that. The out of London strategy has involved not just the move to Manchester but the distribution of resources right across the BBC. So I think what national governors bring to the debate is a knowledge and awareness of the situation in their own nations, but that is to contribute to the discussions, not to lobby in any sense for particular special treatment.

  Q634  Chairman: And you never lobby?

  Professor Monds: Not in that sense, no.

  Q635  Chairman: In what sense do you lobby?

  Professor Monds: I have used the term "communication", I think it is important that information is available and the special circumstances of Northern Ireland need to be reflected.

  Reverend Hill: Can I comment on that and give you an example. At our public meetings—and we have had 22 public meetings of the Council in the last financial year—one of the recurring themes that emerged from local licence payers was that digital radio coverage in Northern Ireland was extremely poor and that many people who had bought these devices on the understanding that they would work discovered they did not; there was only about 43 per cent coverage. The Council were very exercised by this and concerned. We met with management in London in relation to this. We were not wholly content with how that was proceeding. With our report to the governors and through our national governor we were able to have this raised at the Board of Governors and eventually three new transmitters were built in Northern Ireland to serve the audience. I think that demonstrates that there is a reporting path there where a nation's representation in the broader sense is important. Our Council has stated in an appendix to the BBC's Green Paper response that nations' representation on the BBC Trust is an important expression of the representative principle, and will be critical and important to the work of the Board's ability in understanding the UK's diversity. I think that does matter from that point of view. So representation in the broadest sense does matter to the Council and they have stated it, and that arises out of 22 public meetings, four breakfast meetings with people specifically on the topic of the Green Paper, as well as A Sky full of Voices radio talks, at which the audience was a public audience and we had 70,000 listeners. If you look at the DCMS website and the submissions in relation to this you will find that all of the main churches have said that this is an important principle. So we are listening to the audience and reflecting that view back to you.

  Q636  Lord Peston: Could I come in on that because I think all of this raises very deep questions, but it was Reverend Hill's remark about digital. I live in East Anglia and I am pretty sure that the population of East Anglia is larger than that of Northern Ireland, but we have no representation in the sense that you are talking about at all, and our digital coverage is not good enough. One of the reasons why some of us query the whole nations' approach to this is the fact that each part of England is as big as any of the nations, and there seems to be no way of doing in parts of England what you do as part of the nations. I am not opposed entirely to the nations but I bristle a little when I hear about representation in the broad sense because I then say, "What about me?"

  Professor Monds: Yes, there is quite a substantial network of local advisory councils and the English National Forum.

  Q637  Lord Peston: It is not the same thing.

  Professor Monds: It is not the same and I did say a while back that efforts do need to be made and arrangements do need to be made to improve on that. The present Board of Governors is making considerable efforts in terms of accountability events. I would say that in terms of best practice here in Northern Ireland, as Reverend Hill has indicated, we have been pretty active in getting out and about and meeting with people. To be frank, the Board of Governors as a body in a UK sense has not been quite as visible in those terms. Tonight we have a public accountability event in Glasgow, and we have had one in London and there will be a series of these. But I think you are quite right there, that accountability needs to be very, very visible and the appropriate arrangements made across the United Kingdom. That does not, in my mind, negate the arguments for representation.

  Mr Loughrey: You do have in the Regional Advisory Council, which is part of a stratum of accountability known as the English National Forum, where the various Regional Advisory Councils in England and the local Advisory Councils for local radio come together, a member of the Board of Governors with special responsibility for English regions, Ranjit Sondhi. What we are proposing in Building Public Value is that there is equity of status between the English National Forum and the Broadcasting Councils and therefore we create a Broadcasting Council for England. It is difficult to explain why that has not existed to start with—it was an artefact of past arrangements—but we are alert to your concern, and I think it is a very valid one.

  Q638  Lord Peston: Can I take this on more generally into the complaints and feedback area? First of all, in terms of your own experience is complaining a major Northern Ireland activity?

  Professor Monds: I see this from two points of view. One, I happen to be and have been for a few years a member of the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee, so in the last year we have had a radical review and rearrangement of the complaints processes, through the Editorial Complaints Unit in the BBC and to the referral and handling of complaints by the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee. I think that we now have a very powerful, coherent and accessible system which can be accessed through the Web as well as by other means. So in a UK-wide sense we have the complaints process well in hand, I believe, and it is working well. In Northern Ireland, the Broadcasting Council sees each month a report on complaints that have been logged with BBC Information. I do not see—having the opportunity to see the patterns UK-wide and in Northern Ireland—a huge difference, I may say. Perhaps there is a preparedness to lift the telephone or dash off an email or a text, but that rarely translates into a formal complaint. There are, of course, exceptions; the Jerry Springer The Opera show precipitated a very large number of written complaints, but we understand why that happened.

  Q639  Chairman: Before or after?

  Professor Monds: Principally before but some after.

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