Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660 - 679)

WEDNESDAY 23 NOVEMBER 2005

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

  Q660  Lord Peston: Speaking as someone who under no circumstances—a tiny oppressed minority—would ever watch EastEnders, and we are a small oppressed minority, surely one of the great benefits for public service broadcasters is that they can take a responsibility for the cultural heritage and languages. But the question I am pushing you on is, do you do that in terms of need, saying, "It is our duty" in BBC Northern Ireland, "to make sure that we foster the language because that is part of the heritage and national identity," and you are now always designated as nations, a fortiori, or do you wait for others to pressure you to say, "Why are you not doing that?" That is why I made the needs-wishes distinction. As a university teacher it never occurred to me ever to ask what the students wanted, I knew what they had to have. I felt that was my duty.

  Mr Loughrey: I think the truth of language provision here in Northern Ireland is of a very slow start. For the first decades of our existence we made scant, if any, provision or recognition that the Irish language even existed on our airwaves. It was because of the deep cultural and political division in Northern Ireland that that was the case, and it is not something of which we are particularly proud Over recent years with all due diligence we have been trying to address and to create some provision initially on radio and now increasingly on television to make good that deficit.

  Q661  Lord Maxton: How many actual Gaelic speakers are there in Northern Ireland? In Scotland it is under 60,000, and I would hate to think what the cost per head of providing Gaelic services are.

  Ms Carragher: In the 2001 census I think that 167,490 people indicated that they had some knowledge of Irish and of that number approximately 75,000 are estimated as being fluent in the language. It is the third most widely taught language in schools in Northern Ireland.

  Q662  Lord Maxton: What is your budget in terms of providing your Gaelic services?

  Ms Carragher: Our current budget for Irish is £350,000 in the production of television—that was 2004/2005; and £240,000 for radio. So it is a relatively modest provision.

  Q663  Lord Peston: I would approve of that.

  Mr Loughrey: I am sure you will meet others in the course of the morning who have less approval, but this is a moot issue in the constant debate, as you know, in Wales and in Scotland. I think the BBC has an absolute obligation to reflect the diversity of the languages in the United Kingdom. At the core of that cultural diversity is language.

  Q664  Lord Peston: I have one last question down here which I do not understand so I am going to read it out and hope you understand the question. This is following the Ofcom statement. How do you react to Ofcom's suggestion that you ought to foster an enhanced relationship with TG4 to increase Irish language broadcasting? That is the question; I hope you have written down the answer!

  Ms Carragher: TG Ceathair, TG4, is the Irish language broadcaster, which is based in Galway in the Republic of Ireland, and which the Agreement signed in Belfast on Good Friday did actually ask both governments to place its availability within Northern Ireland, which has been, in our case, partly due to transmitter modification. So it is now available more widely within Northern Ireland. It is certainly something in which we talk very frequently with TG Ceathair; we have done co-productions with them and we are currently both of us accessing the Irish Language Production Fund, which the government set up, and we have reciprocal transmission arrangements for programmes for which both of us are accessing funding. As we go ahead, particularly as we go into the digital world, I think the partnership with TG Ceathair is something we would be very interested in exploring with them as a mechanism of delivering Irish language programmes to the Irish language audience in Northern Ireland, and as a mechanism for ensuring that the Irish speaking audience in the Republic of Ireland is also aware of some of the issues surrounding Northern Ireland as well. I think there is a lot of work to be done and this is a journey. I think there is work to be done in terms of what the arrangement might be, what the regulatory framework is going to be, what the funding arrangements might be. I think there are a number of issues to be involved in. I also think that as we go ahead towards the digital world that the notion of delivery of all kinds of services, including languages services, through the milieu of television channels, will become increasingly irrelevant in a sense, and that as we have broadband delivery as a way of broadcasting it may be a better way of delivering services to those audiences in connection with the online provision that Pat mentioned to you earlier, in a way which is actually not going to deprive the monoglot English speaking audience of services as well. I think we need to be adept and careful of that. And Northern Ireland, by the way, is 100 per cent broadband enabled and we have already worked on broadband pilots. So I think we are quite well placed to do that. As we go ahead we need to be imaginative and innovative as to how we deliver those services.

  Q665  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: That leads very nicely to what I wanted to ask you about, which is the role of independent production in Northern Ireland. Is there a strong independent production sector here and does the BBC work efficiently with it, and are you prepared for what is required of you by the introduction of the WAP?

  Ms Carragher: Let me give you a few facts on the strength of the sector first. We currently have 70 independents from Northern Ireland registered in our commissioning system and 28 registered from the Republic of Ireland. However, if you look at PACT membership there are 16 members of PACT, but I think it gives you the picture which is that a lot of those 70 Northern Ireland companies will be quite small enterprises, very often one or two people.

  Q666  Chairman: Did you say 70?

  Ms Carragher: 70, seventy, who registered in our commissioning system, but only 16 are actually members of PACT. So that will give you a view that it is not a particularly strong, large sector, in which this is a small place and it is only ourselves and UTV and to a much lesser extent Channel 4, who are commissioning programmes from the sector. We do work very, very closely with the independent sector and we do have good relations with them. We currently commission 35 per cent of our qualifying output from the independent sector in hours and that is just over 30 per cent in money. So we have a good relationship with them. The expertise is mainly in factual programmes. We are looking at ways to build expertise in other genre and the two areas we are particularly interested in are entertainment. We have a very strong partnership with a number of companies who make entertainment programmes and we have been successful this year in delivering network entertainment programmes, What Kids Really Think, which has recently gone out on a Saturday evening. Just for Laughs. We are also promoting drama and working with the RTÉ and a co-production in developing drama expertise where there is less strength in drama, and that along with current affairs is one of our centres of excellence. So we are keen to build on that.

  Q667  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You mentioned that you deal with a production company based in the south. You said earlier that you wanted a channel where the UK was fully represented and tastefully met. Do you ever deal with independent production companies based in England and Scotland?

  Ms Carragher: Yes, we do, absolutely; we do indeed. We have dealt with a number of companies, one company in particular based in Scotland for local programmes. I do see that we have to nurture the sector in Northern Ireland, that is the primary economic and cultural driver, but we have worked for local programmes with companies in Scotland and our drama department has worked very closely with companies in Scotland, England and occasionally the Republic to deliver drama to the networks as well. So, yes, we do.

  Q668  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You also mentioned—and we all fully accept that things are going to change massively with digital switchover—and you have talked about the important role that the BBC plays here in the ongoing and unfolding story of Northern Ireland. Do you have concerns about a proliferation of channels and how that will affect the role you are talking about that the BBC plays here?

  Ms Carragher: In terms of the independent sector?

  Q669  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: No, I am talking about digital switchover and the proliferation of channels.

  Ms Carragher: I think as the channels proliferate that the television channels, particularly the public service television channel, which is actually rooted in the community that is nurturing the voice of the community and the economic development of the community, actually has a stronger role to play, as we go forward.

  Mr Loughrey: Local programmes, if they are single genre, are more resistant to share decline than elsewhere. Back to the earlier point, I guess that their distinctiveness is more obvious.

  Q670  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In our last report we recommended shared centres of regional excellence. Does the BBC in Northern Ireland share its resources with other regional production companies, or could you do more in that area?

  Ms Carragher: I am sure we could always do more in these things, I am sure that is absolutely the case. But we do routinely pool resources with other broadcasters and we work closely with RTÉ, with Sky and UTV, particularly for coverage of any major events, where we absolutely pool resources. We have also worked with RTÉ in the past on sports coverage and pooled resources for that. In drama, where our resource is very much for our staff, we do a huge amount of staff sharing between independent companies and other production sectors, sending people to work on productions in London and Scotland. The same with entertainment, in particular when we have an expertise in entertainment, and we are looking forward in particular to the building of Pacific Quay, with that very large studio facility there, where we will be able to share resources much more closely with BBC Scotland.

  Mr Loughrey: As we discussed in Manchester yesterday—and I know you will be hearing from UTV later—we are constantly open to means of putting more of our resources and monies on air rather than sitting in studios. So we are very, very open to negotiating the best possible maximisation in this very small place. As it happens, we have both created new studies, albeit in the BBC's case a drive-in and relatively low cost studio at around the same time. I think if UTV and ourselves were thinking of creating two separate studios it would be very unlikely to proceed. We have inherited something from the last decade. I doubt if we would recreate it, but I will leave that to my colleague.

  Q671  Lord Maxton: Are you going into any joint production with RTÉ? It seems to me to be sensible in the digital world.

  Ms Carragher: We have some co-productions with RTÉ, as I mentioned earlier a major drama co-production. We are of course competitors in a sense and we broadcast within the same territory; the audience is able to access both BBC programmes and RTÉ programmes. So there are issues around transmission times and rights, et cetera. But these are conversations that we do have, and we do undertake co-productions.

  Q672  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: We talk here today about celebrating diversity within the nations, but also there is the fact of bringing the nations to the whole country, and in his evidence to our Committee Mark Thompson said that the BBC's focus has been quite a heavily national one, based in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast. How can the BBC decentralise in the nations?

  Mr Loughrey: This is slightly less of a problem in Northern Ireland, given the scale, I have to say. But, here too, of the numbers of staff that Anna has said, 700 odd, for me an unacceptably large number of those people sit in this building day in day out talking to each other and connecting with the outside world on the telephone or on the PC. I think the contemporary technology gives us a degree of dexterity, of mobility that we should see and hear more on air. We should be more accessible to our audience; we should be more engaged with communities from Newry to Crossmaglen, Ballynune and Ballymena. There are lots of fascinating interesting stories and fascinating interesting characters that only of late have we allowed to tell their stories on air, and I think that is a growing trend. In terms of the strategic plans to go forward to secure that local television is at the heart of it, where in Northern Ireland there will be an on demand television news service for the first time for the west of Northern Ireland, and allowing that kind of Belfast dominance to be offset.

  Ms Carragher: And a strong presence in the northwest will be Radio Foyle and an opt out service in Enniskillen. As Pat acknowledges we have changed a great deal in the last few years in terms of having journalists who are living in the community, in Newry, in Coleraine and out of the Belfast area, and feeding back into the communities.

  Q673  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You have mentioned Scotland and Wales. In England you hardly get a Scottish story. On Newsnight you have the opt out and there is a real sense that with devolution bits of the country have been cut off from each other.

  Mr Loughrey: I think that is a very real concern. I sit on the BBC Journalism Board and we discuss it often there. Peter Horrocks has been recently appointed head of television news and he has very exciting plans with Mark Byford, Deputy Director General to make BBC News 24 a different and more vigorous service. It is happily now outperforming Sky on a consistent basis for the first time. All of us believe that it could be and should be more inclusive of the great news gathering strength we have across the UK, so that that could be made available to the whole United Kingdom on a far more regular basis. I think you will see over the months ahead—and we are perfectly happy to be scrutinised on this basis—a significant change in the agenda and style of News 24 and it will be seen not as a secondary service within the BBC but as a primary service with continuous news provision, given that the lives we lead is at the core of what we do, not as somewhat further down the food chain.

  Q674  Lord Maxton: Will there be opt out? Will there be a BC 24 for Scotland, in part?

  Mr Loughrey: That is a very interesting question. That is actually being discussed as we speak. We first of all have to discover whether or not the transmitters will allow us to opt out News 24 across to different platforms. Secondly, I have a little caution that opt outs lead to—

  Q675  Lord Maxton: I am not necessarily in favour of them.

  Mr Loughrey: I am ambivalent myself but we are modelling and discussing precisely at this time about that. I think what Lady Bonham-Carter is leading us to is the integration in the normal news agenda rather than silos.

  Q676  Chairman: Just going back to what you replied to Lady Bonham-Carter, is there a tendency—I mean not just here but in other parts of the UK—for newsrooms and journalists and organisations just to talk to each other? That was rather the impression that you gave.

  Mr Loughrey: I am on very subjective territory here, but happily it is not just myself. I think if you read Andrew Marr's book and memoirs of his experiences in the print media, and a colleague, a friend of mine who is currently editor of the Yorkshire Post, who said that our problem is "air conditioned journalism". Andrew Marr, as I recall, described the cult personality as a product of news driven by press release and the personal computer. I think the heritage of a chap in Mac walking the streets finding out what is going on and recording it, the wealth of colourful news and incidents and events, has diminished. The story content in all news across the United Kingdom and across Europe has been changed by technology and not necessarily enhanced. What we are very keen to reverse is that depth of choice that editors of programmes have at their disposal to broaden the ratings. If we are discussing matters of health we have strength on the ground to provide unique insights into health provision in every corner of the United Kingdom, not just one little corner, and I think that you will see the BBC, especially in News 24, flexing that journalistic muscle to a greater extent than before and getting out of the domination of the press release.

  Professor Monds: Chairman, if I could add to that? I think there are some important issues here and we find always at our public accountability events an appetite for localness and for projection of local interests on a broader scale. If I could just observe the movement of journalists, I think that BBC Northern Ireland has been a remarkably powerful training ground for journalists who have then brought those skills to the wider United Kingdom, and it is very gratifying that BBC Northern Ireland will be a centre of excellence for news and current affairs, and I think that is complementary to what Pat has been saying.

  Q677  Chairman: To some extent we all sign up for localness and all that in every part of the United Kingdom, but to some extent—and the same too with newspapers—it is a function of economics, is it not? If you have 50 reporters you can do more of what you are saying than if you have 20 reporters. So there are cost implications.

  Mr Loughrey: There are, and this is a broader thesis. The economy of television was founded on a scarcity model, a scarcity of very expensive resources, television studios and of camera kits which were enormously expensive, up to £100,000 for a kit, and the scarcity of airtime. But the economy is still managed on the basis of scarcity. The kit is infinitely cheaper and able to deliver at a very high professional standard. Airtime in the digital world is relatively plentiful and I am not sure that our thinking or strategic planning until very recently took account of that remarkable change in the prism in the economy of broadcasting. That is why we in nations and regions are so vigorously supporting the story telling skills of members of the audiences as well, the citizen journalists. It is pity that Lady Howe is not here because that is a very rich vein of enthusiasm for it. As well as employing our own staff more dexterously and more regularly and using that very mobile kit to gather more effectively there are many, many other sources of input to what we do.

  Q678  Chairman: It is a very interesting thesis. We all remember the days when we were interviewed and about seven people turned up, one with sound, one with light and goodness knows what else.

  Mr Loughrey: I remember Lady Thatcher being particularly impressed by that.

  Chairman: Yes, it did make her feel very warm!

  Q679  Lord Maxton: I have to say that my experience of that is that if you were interviewed by someone from the continent there were far fewer of them than there were from the BBC.

  Reverend Hill: Could I comment and say that the Council has certainly welcomed correspondents connected with different regions in Northern Ireland and the increase in PDP, one person with a camera who is also a journalist producing the entire thing. I have people out in my community where, for all the wrong reasons it was news there this summer, but people on the ground telling their stories, talking to people, and I think there seems to be a trend towards more localness. This summer the Milk Cup football match, an international youth game in Coleraine, had a broadband site so that you could watch the matches and see the interviews all on broadband. So it brought home the importance of not just thinking in terms of DTT or satellite but also the broader range of platforms in terms of getting that localness through.


 
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