Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1480 - 1499)


Lord Currie of Marylebone and Mr Tim Suter

  Q1480  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: No doubt you have had a chance to read our first report?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Indeed.

  Q1481  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: It does envisage quite an enlarged role for Ofcom. Some Members of the Committee probably felt that Ofcom's position of authority and impartiality made that plausible and some might even felt faute de mieux because we felt there had to be a body that was not the BBC itself if we were to get a proper division between regulation and governance. For whichever reason, it does envisage quite substantial extra duties being laid on Ofcom. What is your general reaction to the proposals in the report which contained several areas: the adjudication of appeals about the BBC's public value tests about complaints on accuracy and impartiality as an ultimate forum, the role of approving the BBC's own fair trading rules and empowering you to demand information from the BBC and, perhaps most crucially, strengthening the Content Board in order to cope with at least two of those functions. What was the general reaction of Ofcom to our report?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: I thought the report was very helpful in clearly separating the three aspects of governance, accountability and regulation. We see our role as regulation and not those other functions. With respect to the Content Board and the recommendations there, to give it a little context, our annual plan is for the fourth year running setting out a plan for reducing the overall cost of Ofcom. We do not think the additional duties that you are recommending that we be given in the content area are a huge increase in what we are doing. We do quite a lot of tier one and tier two for the BBC already. If those recommendations were followed, no doubt we would wish to increase the resource going into the content area but we could do that, we believe, within an overall declining budget. We would want to strengthen the resources available to the Content Board. We think our Content Board is quite a strong, powerful body. The report refers to it needing to become semi-autonomous. That is a fair description of where we are because all content issues are handled by the Content Board with the support of a very able team run by Tim Suter. Yes, we need to strengthen it but I am not sure we need to change its operations hugely.

  Mr Suter: I think that is right. Your overall thrust is very helpful in that it simplifies a system that is currently complex and not necessarily in that complexity the best vehicle going forwards when the kinds of media people are going to consume, the ways they are going to consume them and where they are going to consume them are going to become increasingly complicated. It is the bit that is relatively simple called broadcasting that is complicated in its regulatory arrangements for where and how people complain and how they seek redress. That seems to us not terribly optimal and it would be better to simplify the system. That is our position and therefore we welcome the general thrust of your report.

  Q1482  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: Thank you. Presumably from Ofcom's point of view, with these extra responsibilities as well as the issue of extra resources which you mention which seems on the face of it reasonable, there would be issues of organisation. Is it your case that the organisational shape you have—after all, it is quite early in the life of Ofcom and I doubt you have reached your final, immutable organisational form—without any significant changes could, with resources, assimilate these new responsibilities?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Yes. We have just gone through an organisational change reflecting the fact that Ofcom is now up and running and starting to get into its stride. We felt it was appropriate to make changes. The one area where we have not needed to make changes is in the content and standards area. This is working well. We need to put in some additional resources but in structure terms I do not think we would need to make major changes.

  Mr Suter: Importantly, it is not least because you are not asking us to change what we do but to extend what we do to include the BBC. The areas you are asking us to cover are areas that we already cover for every other provider of news and information in regard to ITV news, Channel 4 news, the ITV news channel, Sky news and any other news channel that is broadcast. We are already responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and impartial and upholding the law. It is not the arrival of a new set of skills that will be required within Ofcom to make those judgments. It is an extension of those judgments beyond the relatively large number of broadcasters to whom we already provide them to the BBC, which is obviously a significant broadcaster and a very significant addition, but it is not a change in what we do.

  Q1483  Lord Holme of Cheltenham: If you were to take on these court of appeal functions in respect of complaints and maintenance of public service values, are you confident that you could operate the right mixture of light touch in the sense that you want the BBC to deal with complaints and you want them to be concerned as a matter of governance to have the right implementation of public service? Are you satisfied that you can operate as an ultimate arbiter with a light enough touch to encourage the BBC to do it right in the first place so that your final regulatory role is limited?

  Mr Suter: That is the way we want to operate with all broadcasters and the way I think we operate now with the BBC in relation to the large amount of editorial content it is our role to regulate. The large majority of complaints in the broadcasting sphere already go to broadcasters to be dealt with. Those who wish to make a more formal complaint can and do come to us. We are looking at whether it would be appropriate for us in the future to have as our first response formally to invite the complainants to go back to the broadcaster to seek the appropriate form of redress, apology or whatever it might be and reserving, therefore, the right for them to come back to us in relation to whatever complaint they have made if they are not satisfied with the response they have got. That seems to be a sensible balance going forward of establishing the right framework, giving broadcasters an incentive to deal with issues themselves which on the whole I think they do pretty well anyway, but preserving our statutory powers to intervene where we need to and to operate on behalf of the citizen if they have not had fair enough redress in the first instance. That is not something we would want to do differently with the BBC. Indeed, our argument—and I welcome its echo in your report—is that there should be a single approach to broadcasters in relation to issues of standards, taste, harm, offence, fairness and accuracy and impartiality because of that separation between regulation which is an external validation and approval, and governance, which is the internal process of guaranteeing the highest of editorial standards. It seems to us that that is an appropriate and important distinction and could be made to work across the whole system.

  Q1484  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: As you have already heard, a number of us came to the conclusion that Ofcom would be the best at dealing with the other aspects of the BBC via different methods of thought processes. Perhaps there are already too many regulators being set up and the idea of the court of appeal to let the broadcasters get on with it in the first instance is very important. You will remember that the main reason that there is concern about the Content Board not being on the same parallel as the consumer panel is because the Content Board was very much a last minute add-on. The concern people were expressing in the debate on the Broadcasting Act was very much concentrated in this last minute effort to set up the Content Board. Subsequently you will remember the view that it is an economic regulator first and foremost, though it has content power. You will remember that there was a fillip about the citizen consumer or consumer citizen. I gather you have addressed that and you do not think in those terms any more which is reassuring, but there is still the desire out there on the content side that there should be greater transparency in what you are doing on the Content Board. The argument that we have made for giving a parallel situation to the Content Board that you have already there in the consumer panel, which reports and we can see where you have been discussing with the panel and the board getting together on some of the issues, is that this would be a beneficial and reassuring approach to the citizen group, those who are very concerned about content and would like to hear more, more regularly, about what you do.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: The architecture which the Communications Act gave us, in my view, is working very well indeed. The Content Board takes responsibility for all content matters and works exceedingly effectively in that area. Where there are issues where content and economic issues come together, the main board listens very carefully indeed to the advice it gets on the content issues from the Content Board but in the end it has to make a balancing decision and those issues arise from time to time but by no means very regularly. The consumer panel is independent because it is not a decision making body. It advises us. The Content Board is making decisions on behalf of Ofcom, very important decisions in the content area. To make it as autonomous as the consumer panel would create very serious difficulties in those areas where content issues have to be balanced against broader economic issues. That change would be disabling for Ofcom. The present arrangement does allow us to work very effectively in combining the content of other issues in a way that I think is linked to the needs of citizens and consumers.

  Mr Suter: The transparency point is essential. We can always learn lessons from how others make themselves transparent and make sure that our decisions are well understood. At the moment, we have programmes of research which are published and which I think are quite authoritative. We will be holding seminars in relation to key aspects of public service broadcasting. We publish every fortnight our bulletin which contains all our findings and, where there are no findings of breaches but there are nevertheless editorial issues that need to be promulgated widely across the industry so that people can see where our thinking is coming from, that happens every fortnight. We have just issued our code in the summer, the first ever combined broadcasting code. No doubt there will be others who will do it better but it was a pretty good example of us trying to be as inclusive as possible in that consultation because it was a lengthy consultation process with 900 responses to get at a single code. I think it is a pretty authoritative piece of work. I have no doubt there will be other ways in which we can do it better. Transparency of our decision making must be our goal. We started from the position that said there should be simplicity in our rules and applicability of our guidance which should be kept up to date through dialogue with citizens and broadcasters. That is what we have adopted. That is all available online in our guidance and it is regularly updated.

  Q1485  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: From the viewpoint of the licence fee payer, what is going on is not as transparent to them as what is happening between the board and the consumer panel. It is that which is underlying the process. You are seen very much as an economic regulator with the priorities that you have because if you remember quite a lot of the argument was, "Not yet. We may look at that later" but perhaps you could take on more of the content at a later stage. Given all of that, surely there is a case for saying where is your priority for citizenship issues? I am talking about the board overall. How can we see this more transparently unless you have something that for the licence fee payer looks as transparently clear? Sometimes the consumer panel says something to you and sometimes you accept it; sometimes you do not, but it is out and public. How can you do that if you are not slightly separate? I hear what you are saying, that you think you have more power, but from the point of view of the licence fee payers that is not entirely clear.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: The question of how we are seen to be serving the interests of consumers and citizens is a very important one. One thing that we are considering which could be very important is a proposal by our consumer panel that we should find a mechanism for doing an audit of our work which examines how and how effectively we take account of consumer interests and citizen interests. That would be a way of making it transparent. Any such audit would be published, to make transparent the way in which we operate and pursue the citizen and consumer interests. I believe we are doing that and I believe the mechanism we have is achieving the goals Parliament set us, but we need to be able to demonstrate that absolutely firmly. One demonstration is our public service broadcasting review, looking at economic matters and very clearly at citizen matters. A pure economic regulator would not have come forward with a report of that kind at all. It would have reached a very different conclusion.

  Q1486  Chairman: Perhaps we can come to our second report. We seem to have come up with a broad formula which will reduce complexity, which must be to the advantage of the public and broadcasting, and also which can be managed without a big increase in resources and cost, which from the Treasury point of view must again be extremely important.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Not from the Treasury's point of view; from the point of view of broadcasters.

  Chairman: I take back my customary insult to the Treasury. Let us move to our second inquiry. We are looking at religious broadcasting, the broadcasting of sport and various other aspects.

  Q1487  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: In your phase one of the public service broadcasting review and various consultations you did make the point that you had found there were too few religious programmes in peak time viewing, that demonstrated the moral, ethical and philosophical relevance to topical or factual issues. Since that review, have you seen any evidence that the BBC is scheduling rather more of this type of religious broadcasting in peak time?

  Mr Suter: I do not think there is any evidence that the BBC is scheduling more religious programmes in peak time but the issue that frames this is the distinction between religious programmes that are defined as religious programmes and returned by the broadcasters as religious programmes, as opposed to programmes that will deal with issues of morality, ethics or religious faith in a broader or different way. That is always the challenge. It is the challenge we laid out in the public service broadcasting review which we hope commissioners and producers will rise to, which is to find ways that are more likely to attract the large audiences that you need to hold a programme within the heart of the peak time schedule, that will tackle those difficult subjects, but using genres or formats that are more conventionally likely to attract those large audiences. What we are expecting broadcasters to do is to balance those more traditional, protected types of programme that are likely to have smaller audiences and therefore are likely to struggle if put into the peak time schedule with programmes that are more likely to sustain a large audience because they are tackling those subjects in different ways. That is what we hope broadcasters will do. To the straightforward, factual question are more religious programmes being scheduled in peak time, the answer is no. Do we expect to see broadcasters commission more inventive ways of getting religious programmes into peak time? We certainly hope so.

  Q1488  Lord Kalms: Your executive summary dated May 2005 rather damned with faint praise the BBC's efforts in religious broadcasting. We have interviewed the BBC on this and they made a very impressive show but I did not have the sense that they were responding to the points that you were making. It is a difficult area. You are walking on eggshells all the time and there are lots of forces which have impact and they have their slots and popularity. Nevertheless, I did not get any sense that they were moving in the direction of your executive summary. I do not know how you interface with them. I have a feeling that the BBC reads your executive summary and puts it into a pigeon hole. Would that be unfair?

  Mr Suter: It is important that the arrangements for the qualitative aspect of public service broadcasting regulation, what is commonly referred to as the tier three stuff in relation to different kinds of public service output, are a matter in terms of the BBC for the governors. We do our review which looks at all of public service broadcasting. We try to draw out the threads that we think are common across the piece and challenges that we hope broadcasters collectively and individually will rise to. It is then a matter for the governors to ensure the delivery of the sorts of programmes they think will best meet the public service purposes of the BBC.

  Q1489  Lord Kalms: If they ignore you, what is your purpose? The executive summary is quite critical of what the BBC should be doing in religious broadcasting. There are strong words here. If that criticism does not impact—it is now six or seven months since the criticism—what is the purpose of the whole exercise?

  Mr Suter: It is a review that we do every five years. Annually, we report statistically what is going on in terms of broadcasting. Secondly, this is an area where we do not regulate the BBC. We do not regulate the religious output of the BBC in relation to its public service broadcasting obligations. That is a matter for the governors. It is our job to put forward our perception of the whole broadcasting system. Commissioning cycles are quite long. It takes time to change the nature and balance of output, especially if you are talking about developing new approaches or new commissioning strategies. Those are not going to happen within seven months.

  Q1490  Lord Kalms: Do you think the BBC is listening to you? Listening to the BBC, I did not hear in their comments a reflection of these criticisms. In other words, they must have read it but one did not get the sense that they had picked up these points and were going to run with them. If you are only in an advisory capacity and you do not have any powers other than mild persuasion, it is not a very satisfactory role.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: The key point is that this is a role that rests with the governors. We are charged as the overall regulator in broadcasting to take a periodic look and that is a sensible thing that Parliament asks us to do. Therefore, it is quite germane to your consideration of the charter process that is under way. Tim has articulated the key point that the challenge in this area is one of finding new formats that grab people's attention and enthuse people, presenting religious and ethical issues in a new way, in the way that you are reinventing other formats in other areas of broadcasting more generally. It is not necessarily an easy thing but broadcasters need to be experimenting to bring that about. It is quite interesting that the BBC programme The Monastery had more viewers than Celebrity Love Island and that is encouraging. We would like to see a few more successes of that kind.

  Q1491  Lord Kalms: You do not have adequate powers to implement your review. You have purely advisory powers; you have no stick and perhaps a little carrot somewhere.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: I think that is right but that is how Parliament set us up. They felt it appropriate that the power should rest with the governors and broadcasters without us having an influence on those decisions.

  Mr Suter: If I may just supplement that. We do have very significant powers in relation to enforcing public service obligations in relation to ensuring the quantity of original programming that must be made. We said in our Public Service Broadcasting Review that it was an absolutely fundamental requirement going forward that there should be a heavy investment in original programming. That requires broadcasters to spend that money across the schedule that they are going to deliver. That is not an insignificant lever with which to influence the behaviour of public service broadcasters.

  Q1492  Chairman: Lord Kalms is absolutely right, is he not, because your paper makes a fairly persuasive case for having more entertaining, more innovative religious broadcasting and it is also critical of a number of points, that particularly industry professionals, let alone the public, think that audiences are currently poorly served by religious broadcasting in a number of ways? We have got the diagnosis but how are we ever going to get to a better outcome?

  Mr Suter: I think the outcome is one that can only be achieved by the broadcasters themselves exerting influence over their commissioning strategies. It is not for us as regulators to be setting up commissioning strategies for broadcasters. It is not our job and, frankly, I do not think we would be very good at it. It is our job to point out what we believe the citizen deficit is and how we believe broadcasters could address it. It is then our job to come back and review whether they have done so. We have not found a better way of doing it.

  Q1493  Lord Kalms: You have got one every five years which means nothing is going to happen between now and four and a half years if your recommendations are not implemented.

  Mr Suter: No. Every year, every broadcaster has to publish a statement of programme policy. That is in relation to, and takes account of, our Public Service Broadcasting Review. There is an annual process.

  Q1494  Chairman: So you could go on banging away at it year by year. When it comes to it, Lord Kalms was right, if the BBC wishes to ignore, they can ignore. I am not saying they would, but that is the power structure as it stands at the moment.

  Mr Suter: The formal lever that we have to pull is insisting on the amount of original production that they make, on setting out the purposes of public service broadcasting and judging whether the statements of programme policy as delivered to us by the public service broadcasters constitute a significant change from the way it was being delivered before, and if so whether that change is beneficial.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Just to be clear, suppose Parliament had decided to give us more regulatory levers in this area, I submit that those levers would not have been effective, what you would arrive at is a process of box ticking. In the end, as Tim has said, it is the commissioners who have to do the creative act of finding new formats; regulation cannot make that happen.

  Q1495  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You have talked about formats but what about subject matter. In their evidence, Channel 4 suggested that the BBC's approach is monotheistic and within that it concentrated too much on Christianity and Judaism. Is that something that you have a view on?

  Mr Suter: It is not something on which we have a formal view, other than we believe the public service obligation is to present programmes and ideas that cover a range of beliefs, a range of faiths, a range of attitudes, and that is something we expect all broadcasters to do.

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: Public service broadcasting is about reflecting our multicultural society and that is a core aspect of the ambition there.

  Q1496  Lord Peston: I want to ask you about the Central Religious Advisory Committee. Perhaps I ought to declare an interest: I think there is far too much religion that is broadcast and I cannot see any necessary connection, which Tim seems to take for granted, between religion on the one hand and morality and ethics on the other. I would regard it as your duty to say that we ought to have programmes that show that. Is not the Central Religious Advisory Committee a rather anomalous body and in practice they are just a religious pressure group, are they not? They consist only of religious people who believe in things. Why should there exist such a body and why should you take any note of them, other than you take note of all citizenship issues?

  Mr Suter: I think the first thing to say is that it is not a committee of Ofcom, it is a BBC committee. Its membership and constitution and constitutional arrangements are really for the BBC to respond to rather than us. It is an organisation that will need to respond to the different roles that the BBC as constituted in future will have of it, and one of those is assisting the regulator in forming conclusions about issues in relation to whether a particular programme was appropriate and whether it was offensive to different groups, and another role is assisting commissioners and broadcasters to ensure that their range of subject matter or their treatments are appropriate or are sensitive or well enough thought through. I think those are different roles and the Religious Advisory Council will want to address how it meets those and whether a single body can do those and how it is appropriate in the new BBC structure. It is for the BBC to determine what that is. From Ofcom's perspective, we do not have any other formal advisory bodies than those that have been set up by statute. We seek advice from a wide range of people to ensure that our judgments are well rooted and we try to be as open as we can about those from whom we seek that advice.

  Q1497  Lord Peston: When Dr Siddiqui told us that CRAC was an unofficial advisory committee to Ofcom that was wrong?

  Mr Suter: The important word there is "unofficial". It is an advisory committee to the BBC with whom we meet a couple of times a year.

  Q1498  Lord Peston: You meet CRAC?

  Mr Suter: We meet CRAC but it has no formal role in advising us.

  Q1499  Lord Peston: Are there any other pressure groups of that sort that you meet formally?

  Lord Currie of Marylebone: We meet a whole range of bodies.

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