Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 700 - 719)


Mr Allan Bremner, Ms Patricia Galvin and Mr Pa«dhraic O« Ciardha

  Q700  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. How do your audience figures compare with the BBC? How do yours in Ulster Television?

  Mr Bremner: My understanding, Chairman, is that we have a peak time share of 33 per cent, 34 per cent. I am only talking at this stage about BBC Northern Ireland, the first channel, and my understanding is that their share would be about 24 per cent. That is peak time. Then if you looked at morning and afternoon the BBC would have a clear lead in both those day parts.

  Q701  Chairman: But at peak time you have a clear lead, do you?

  Mr Bremner: We have, yes.

  Q702  Chairman: What about audience figures elsewhere? What do RTÉ and TG4 do?

  Ms Galvin: For example, in the Republic of Ireland RTÉ's share would be on average about 40 per cent—35 per cent, 40 per cent. We do not have any accurate data as yet in terms of audience share in the north. We have recently joined the Bar Panel but the data is not yet refined enough to be able to provide any accurate data.

  Q703  Chairman: TG4?

  Mr O« Ciardha: In the Republic our peak time share would be about three and a half per cent. Again, like RTÉ we only have anecdotal ideas of the reception. The level of interest anecdotally is very strong in Northern Ireland but we do not have firm data.

  Q704  Chairman: That will come, will it, in due course?

  Mr O« Ciardha: Yes, it will, although we will have to be careful, as I think Anna Carragher said this morning, and we will probably hear again, given that there are very complex rights here. So to have the information available and not make commercial use of it or not being accused of making commercial use of it for Northern Ireland would be a difficult act.

  Q705  Chairman: Are there any particular unique demands placed on broadcasters operating in Northern Ireland, that you find?

  Mr Bremner: I think the context in which all of us operate is quite obviously a unique context. I feel very strongly that first and foremost we have to provide an impartial and fair news service. I think most people would agree that if you look at the newspapers in Northern Ireland they are declared, inasmuch as I think you could easily identify, some papers find themselves at the Orange end of the spectrum and others who would find themselves at the Green end of the spectrum. And I use that only as a matter of shorthand. So I think television has a unique place to play in its provision of news. I also feel strongly—and I know that the BBC and ourselves share this—that current affairs has an important role to play. We live in a state where there have been considerable ebbs and flows about how the institutions of state conduct themselves. So do I feel very strongly that investigative current affairs is something which the BBC and UTV would commit themselves to. I have to say that it is self-evident also in TG4 and RTÉ, but in the north I think it is absolutely no accident that both BBC Northern Ireland and UTV have won Royal Television awards, national awards for the quality of their current affairs. Thirdly, I think that in general programmes we have a very real challenge to show the diversity of this particular society. We are not merely Unionists or Nationalists and in general programmes I think we have to recognise that, and also celebrate the talents that we have in this community and not castigate ourselves for that.

  Q706  Chairman: Looking at the BBC and BBC Northern Ireland, they obviously also provide a very comprehensive service, but are there gaps in it? When you look from the outside do you feel that there are things the BBC could be doing that they are not doing?

  Mr Bremner: I feel very strongly—and I am not simply saying this because I am here—that we have in Northern Ireland a BBC service, both on radio and television, which is fully committed to serving Northern Ireland. I think that both of us would probably say that sometimes we find ourselves scheduling against each other when it might be better if we were scheduling in a complementary fashion, but that is not always manageable. I see no deficit at the moment in BBC services.

  Q707  Chairman: What do you feel on either of the points, Ms Galvin?

  Ms Galvin: I suppose on the challenges and the issues of being present in the north, the ability of a broadcaster to be able to fairly and impartially reflect the events in Northern Ireland is a challenge, and I would agree that in many respects it raises the standard and the benchmark for journalism, particularly in the area of current affairs and editorial standards. An interesting dilemma, as it was for RTÉ over the years, was that we had a Section 31 list of organisations that could not be covered on television or on radio, and I think that made it very difficult over those years up until 1994—from about 1971 to 1994—to cover and to truly reflect the events in the north, given that there was this ban on certain organisations not being mentioned and not being interviewed on air. That has now changed. I think we are also looking forward to an era where, with technological developments, with digital eventually and with broadband TV, we can give a little bit more in-depth coverage with the opportunity for updates in years to come and will be able to give a little bit more in-depth coverage and reflect that.

  Q708  Chairman: And gaps in the BBC?

  Ms Galvin: Not for us to say, I think. There is nothing that we would observe, but given that we operate under a mandate in a different jurisdiction it is not for us to say.

  Q709  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In the Republic is the BBC picked up?

  Ms Galvin: Yes, it is; for many decades actually because of the power of the analogue signal—we call it spill-over—there has been a quite healthy reception of the BBC's channels and also UTV's channels and ITV's channels as well. Also the BBC is now available on cable and satellite platforms and so, yes, it has a very healthy presence, and I suppose in that sense we have a competitive dynamic in that sense.

  Q710  Chairman: Let me bring in TG4 and then throw it open.

  Mr O« Ciardha: I was about to make that point. It is very important to bear in mind that the first television in the Republic was UK television, and it is very much seen as being a sine qua non of any television reception platform in the Republic, that it will bring to you UTV and BBC Northern Ireland. We have had Members of Parliament or Da«il elected on the specific issue of trying to bring better reception of international, that is to say UK television. It is an absolutely crucial part of the television mix. Again, like Patricia, I am not here to point up gaps in a colleague broadcaster in another jurisdiction but I do, as an Irish language broadcaster, see the huge challenge for the BBC in servicing the real expectation of the Irish language community here, to have provided to them by the public service broadcaster here the same level or an equivalent level of service as they see happening in Wales, where the BBC provides programming to S4C and whatever happens with Scots Gaelic. So I am not expressing a personal view there, but I do know from membership of things like the Celtic Film and Television Festival that Irish language users in this community do have a real expectation and do have, I think, a growing appreciation of the challenge that that does place on the BBC with its restricted airtime. So perhaps innovative and thinking outside the box needs to be brought in there because more and more Ireland is becoming an all-Ireland television landscape, we do cooperate on so many things. I think going forward there is a willingness and a need to think about more creative ways of servicing those expectations.

  Q711  Chairman: My last question and then I will bring in others. How is the quality of the BBC, the impartiality of that BBC actually seen in the Republic? How do viewers look at it? Do they look at it as reliable, as unbiased, or do they look at it as rather putting a particular point of view?

  Ms Galvin: I would say absolutely seen as an essential, I suppose, component. We have an expression where we describe the UTV, the BBC channels and the Irish terrestrial channels as being the "meat and two veg" for viewing in the home, and it is often the package that cable and satellite operators will promote in order to sell their basic package maybe as well as additional channels. I think Irish viewers have been so accustomed to multi-channel viewing because of the spill-over from many decades, as I mentioned, that there is an expectation that it is an essential part of the mix, the range of viewing that you are going to have in the home. So I would see it as being part of their viewing expectation.

  Q712  Chairman: But an "essential part of the mix" is not quite the same as actually saying that that is an organisation which is providing a totally impartial and fair portrait of what is taking place.

  Ms Galvin: I suppose it depends on a viewer's sense of what is taking place, where and what events there are. Clearly there are Irish terrestrial channels that can spend a little more time telling stories about ourselves to the viewers, and clearly the BBC's remit is one primarily for a different audience—it is for the UK licence fee payers essentially. But given those small variations in terms of impartiality and fairness I do not think they are different.

  Mr O« Ciardha: I would echo that, with the exception obviously when England are playing Ireland at rugby, then obviously we know which channel to watch! The BBC is held in extremely high regard throughout Ireland, with obvious certain exceptions—people from a particular political perspective may take a different view. It is seen very much as being the benchmark for UK broadcasting, yes.

  Q713  Lord Maxton: This comes to the point. Do you do an Ulster News, as opposed to you only doing it when Ulster is part of, if you see what I mean, something that affects the south? Do you actually do an actual Ulster opt out of any sort? No?

  Ms Galvin: We do not have the technical functionality really for that yet. Clearly it is an essential part of the news story telling on a regular basis and, as I mentioned earlier, hopefully with all going well with digital free to air signal in the north, if there is the opportunity for RTÉ to be able to extend its services via digital—we are a little bit limited at the moment with analogue—it will make it a little more easy to have the opt outs.

  Q714  Lord Maxton: Presumably that is the same?

  Mr O« Ciardha: Yes, it is, but I think it is also important that our coverage of Northern Ireland is not just of the obvious political. Economic and sports stories—particularly for us, sports stories—and drama and entertainment, we do not see a border in that sense. Stories are covered, documentaries are made, dramas are produced irrespective of their origin. So there is no anti-Ulster bias.

  Q715  Lord Maxton: No, I am not saying there is an anti one, but obviously you are both based elsewhere.

  Mr O« Ciardha: Yes, and funded by it.

  Q716  Lord Maxton: And funded elsewhere. Could I therefore ask it the other way around? Mr Bremner, do you have any specific coverage from elsewhere rather than just doing an Ulster News and only where it affects Ulster?

  Mr Bremner: There is a difficulty in the sense that under our Ofcom licence what we have to do is to service the community in Northern Ireland, and not to prioritise the community in the south. But by definition what happens in the Republic quite properly is part of our news agenda, and we have a reporter and a crew in Dublin to cover that. In terms of political coverage it is a considerable matrix if you have Dublin, Washington, Belfast and London all contributing to the news of the day.

  Q717  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In our first report we recommended that the BBC should work with other companies to created share centres of regional excellence. Can I ask Mr Bremner first, does that happen here? Do you share your resources? Also, do you think that is a good idea?

  Mr Bremner: In many ways I suspect that the levels of cooperation between the BBC and UTV are exceptional. This shared effort probably does not qualify as a centre of excellence. I think possibly we are the only BBC and ITV companies that share some of our sports contracts. At production level we quite often share each other's technical resources. When things were bad we would agree that if we were burnt out of UTV we would be allowed to broadcast from here and vice versa. One of the things that is also unique to Ireland is that all of the broadcasters sit on a group called Broadcasters of Ireland Group, and that again is a unique forum for cooperating broadcasters. Two years ago we did a short series of films on the subject of home; and all the broadcasters in Ireland contributed films and then all the broadcasters could show the films. So you had what I think is a unique arrangement where on UTV you have a short film made by RTÉ or TG Ceathair. On BBC you had a short film made by UTV. So I would have thought that there is a broad perception that we are quite a cooperative bunch. I think there are considerable problems for us being able to contribute to a centre of excellence because we do not get a single penny from the ITV network for any of our activities. So to a certain extent our operation is structurally different and operates in a different fashion to that of the BBC.

  Q718  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: What would RTÉ think about that, particularly considering, as you were saying, the digital future?

  Ms Galvin: Certainly to date, in so far as it makes economic sense and it makes sense in terms of quality and coverage, there is terrific cooperation in terms of shared facilities, et cetera, as has been the case historically. The status of RTÉ in the north at the moment is such that I suppose it is primarily motivated by the spiritual diversity and purism to make these services available in the north for no additional commercial gain. There may be an opportunity in the future, again with availability on platforms, and if there is an opportunity to extend the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement in the digital area, if and when we have a digital terrestrial platform in the Republic of Ireland as well, there is an opportunity for reciprocity which could change the dynamic and possibly even the effort and the focus that can go into making the service available and a dedicated service for the community of Northern Ireland.

  Q719  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I was interested you said that historically you have shared facilities with them. In what sense?

  Ms Galvin: For example, initially when RTÉ started to cover more stories and to be present in the north the BBC would have had an infrastructure and there would have been opportunities to have shared circuits and a lot of technical sharing and facilities sharing.

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