Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1480
WEDNESDAY 14 DECEMBER 2005
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 haveafter all, it is quite early in the life
of Ofcom and I doubt you have reached your final, immutable organisational
formwithout 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 argumentand I welcome its echo
in your reportis 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
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.
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
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 impactit is now six or seven months since the criticismwhat
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
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
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.
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.
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
Lord Currie of Marylebone: We meet a whole range