Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1431 - 1439)


Lord Currie of Marylebone and Mr Tim Suter

  Q1431  Chairman: Good morning. It is very good to see you again. I gather you decided not to bring Stephen Carter today?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: We felt that the two of us would be able to handle your questions appropriately. Tim Suter is head of our contents and standards area.

  Q1432  Chairman: As you know, we are now into the second part of our review. We have published the first part and we are now looking at various other areas but perhaps we could jog back to the first part and some of the recommendations and proposals that we made there and also in light of the debate we had in the House of Lords on Friday. One of the things which is constantly said about Ofcom is that you are just an economic regulator, nothing more, nothing less. Do you accept that?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: I would certainly not accept it. Our public service broadcasting review and the whole process around it indicate the much broader range of responsibilities that Ofcom has given to us by Parliament, enshrined in the Communications Act. We have a very clear responsibility for the citizens' interests as well as consumer interests and we have to balance those where they might come into conflict. We have a very clear responsibility to maintain and strengthen public service broadcasting which is reflected in our PSB review. We have a much wider range and we regulate not just the private sector but the state owned Channel 4 and we also have regulatory powers over many aspects of the BBC's activities. We are certainly not a pure economic regulator.

  Q1433  Chairman: Remind us of the two powers, the powers you have with the BBC and the powers you have with the commercial broadcasters in the non-economic field.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: We have over the commercial broadcasters, including Channel 4, tier one responsibilities for harm and offence, fairness and privacy and accuracy and impartiality. We also have those powers over the BBC except in respect of accuracy and impartiality of news. Then we have powers at tier two in terms of quotas of regional production, origination and so on. The BBC governors have responsibility for tier three powers. In the case of commercial broadcasters, we have a co-regulatory arrangement.

  Q1434  Chairman: If someone makes a complaint to the BBC and they are not satisfied with it, that is perhaps the end of the matter but if someone makes a complaint to ITV do you act as a final court?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Yes and also in respect of the BBC. We made the final adjudication on the Jerry Springer Opera.

  Mr Suter: It is important on issues like that that the BBC is regulated in exactly the same way as any other broadcaster. If it is an issue of harm or offence, what used to be described as taste or decency that is a matter for Ofcom. A complainant to the BBC has exactly the same status as a complainant to ITV about a similar programme or a complainant to any other broadcaster. The broadcaster may respond to it and may satisfy the complainant or may not, or the complainant can come direct to the regulator and in those instances the regulator is us. In Jerry Springer, the BBC received a lot of complaints. We received a lot of complaints directly as well. We waited, as we always do in situations like that, for the broadcaster to determine their own response, whether they think what they did was appropriate or not appropriate, before we come to our regulatory decision. In those senses, the BBC is in no different circumstance to any other broadcaster.

  Q1435  Chairman: When it comes to accuracy and impartiality the BBC is a special case?

  Mr Suter: That is right.

  Q1436  Chairman: They are judge and jury, to put it in an emotive way?

  Mr Suter: They regulate their own output in relation to accuracy and impartiality in news programmes.

  Q1437  Chairman: They are judge and jury.

  Mr Suter: If regulators are judges and juries that is what they are.

  Q1438  Chairman: You say that you will consider charging companies who use the spectrum from 2006 and you also say that if you decide to go ahead charges would apply to the BBC and Channel 4. As far as the BBC is concerned, obviously it would push up the costs and the licence fee costs. Have you therefore decided whether the BBC is to be charged for spectrum from 2006?

Lord Currie of Marylebone: No, we have not. We have made it clear that there will be no charge for analogue spectrum unless a broadcaster was wilfully late with the digital switchover process. The question of whether we should charge for digital spectrum for broadcasters is a question that we will be going out for consultation on next year. We have not taken a view on it but it is a question that we will come to as part of the broader review of spectrum pricing and spectrum trading. This is part of a much broader picture but whether we would wish, after consultation, to charge broadcasters is an entirely different matter.

  Q1439  Chairman: Is the decision entirely up to you?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Yes.

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