Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1761 - 1779)


Lord Puttnam

  Q1761  Chairman: Welcome, Lord Puttnam. You know only too well about the progress of this Committee. Since we last spoke to you, you have become deputy chairman of Channel 4.

  Lord Puttnam: I will be at the end of February.

  Q1762  Chairman: Congratulations on that. Can I refer to your speech to RTS North East and Borders which you sent to us, given at the Throwing Stones Restaurant at the National Glass Centre? I assume such does exist?

  Lord Puttnam: And stones were thrown.

  Chairman: You talked about the potential for really local television. One of the reasons you said that there was potential was the question of costs. You can go into Dixons and for as little as only £2,000 buy a digital camera.

  Lord Kalms: That was before the sale. I think you mean £200.

  Q1763  Chairman: I knew it was a mistake to quote Dixons. But you made the point that such cameras have better resolution than anything the BBC owned five years ago.

  Lord Puttnam: That is correct.

  Q1764  Chairman: The barrier to entry that there once was in terms of technical equipment and the cost of that has simply vanished.

  Lord Puttnam: I was using it as an illustration of the pace of change and the collapse of the barrier to entry.

  Q1765  Chairman: Tell us about your concept. Cost is on one side but you take the view that television can now be very local indeed and there could be—I remember you made an analogy between Chelmsford and Northampton—a television station in Chelmsford and a television station in Northampton. Would that be fair?

  Lord Puttnam: Yes. The example I was using was from my own background of 20 years as a non-executive director of Anglia Television. I think I know a reasonable amount about what we term "regional television". Regional television as we know it existed because there were a number of places in the country where you could put up a transmitter mast, get a signal, put a circle round that and call it a region. These regions were always totally illusory. I do not think anyone would pretend that even today, after 30 years of Granada, Liverpool and Manchester are entirely harmonised and see themselves as a region. I would defer to the Bishop but I do not think that is the case. In Anglia, we never reconciled Norfolk and Suffolk. The situation in a sense became worse, not better. At the time of the 1990 charter review and renewal of the licences, we had a long discussion about the possibility of a triple opt-out. That was the idea of having a news gathering service in Cambridge. Local news would be offered from Ipswich, Norwich and Cambridge. There was an enormous debate about this. The argument from many of the executives was that it was a waste of time because the maximum Cambridge reach was only 300,000 people. I have spent a lot of my time working in the United States. There are people who probably with Mafia backing would kill for an audience of 300,000. 300,000 is regarded as a very big and profitable audience in the United States. I think we lapsed into an acceptance of the fact that we had a market which was fragmented into these so-called regions, which started with no geographical rationale but merely a technological rationale, and we have not got around to challenge that thinking. In the eight years I have been in your Lordships' House, I have gone around the country a very great deal, mostly in connection with my work for the Department of Education. What you quickly come to terms with is the desperate need of communities to talk to each other and identify themselves as a community. I think it is a need that has grown in those eight years, not diminished. Here we have the technology to at last to be able to do it. It has been done very effectively for many years by local newspapers but local newspapers have their own limitations. Here is the chance to move into another area. One of my concerns is that the only movers at present are the BBC. All my concerns with the BBC are to do with what I would term as the over-professionalisation of the local. My concept is some what different. My concept is that if you see someone reading the news who Monday, Wednesday and Friday is on the check-out at Tesco your reaction to her is, "She is doing remarkably well." It is not, "Is she as good as Anna Ford?" It is possible that most local, technical colleges could get eight small cameras, send students out on a Saturday to cover three weddings each in the region, come back on Sunday, edit them into a programme and on the afternoons of the following week you have communities looking at themselves, seeing their own weddings, possibly not as beautifully shot as the BBC might do it, but something of real community value. I have brought along a video and it illustrates the fact that everything changes and nothing changes. I do not know if you are familiar with this wonderful series of films, The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon, put out by the BFI. This was a stash of films found in Blackburn shot very locally, in the early years of the twentieth century by local cameramen who went to workplaces, the football ground and various other places and filmed people coming out of work or the local football ground and, the following week, screened them at the equivalent of Blackburn Odeon. People turned up in their droves. Why? Because they were seeing themselves, and their own communities reflected within their own context. I do not think that instinct has ever in any way been removed. We have not had an audiovisual medium with which to allow people to reflect on their own interests: on people they know; the girl they were at school with. That is a completely legitimate form of television but we have allowed ourselves to lapse into the notion that television is something far more, national and rarefied. My key argument during that speech was our need to understand that the local has not been served at all by television and yet the technology now exists to do it.

  Q1766  Chairman: You referred to the United States. Does that mean that in the United States there are such local television services?

  Lord Puttnam: Very much so. The example I have used has been going for 50 years. It is run by Wisconsin State University. It is a marvellous example of what is possible. International news is taken down from the BBC. National news is obtained from PBS. But most of it is local, local football matches, local news, and local events. About two-thirds of the output on an average evening is local but it does not ignore the national and the international.

  Q1767  Chairman: Has a market survey been done in this country to see if there is potential?

  Lord Puttnam: There have been some attempts using analogue spectrum to do it, some more successful than others. What I believe is that once you go out to communities, once you are prepared to invest in and take a chance on what local people do, you have to accept a fair amount of crash and burn. If you go down this route there will be failures, but there will also be successes. My belief is if you stay with it, if you allow the successes to be well publicised, you will begin to emerge over 15 years, I would say, with a pattern of very successful, maybe formulaic but very successful, local stations which serve a defined public need and which tie very neatly into all the other developments taking place in technology. The Wisconsin station, for example, is very closely tied to its web based service. Everything is on it. Much of it is also webcast. You can constantly update yourself on what is happening. These are very complementary media and the web gives a lot of advantages to the potential at local broadcasting that have not existed in the past.

  Q1768  Chairman: What kind of operators do you envisage running these services?

  Lord Puttnam: I would like to see a number of different versions, maybe local councils in cooperation with local NGOs. It would be very nice to think—I do not think it will happen—that the BBC could be a key partner with local organisations. I bow to nobody in my admiration for the corporation. Unfortunately, the BBC traditionally is a horrible partner. It does not "do partner". That would be desirable but in the end unlikely. I think it would be community organisations of different types, sometimes maybe involving local businesses and sometimes not. It would be very interesting to see what type of patterns of ownership would emerge.

  Q1769  Lord Maxton: You mentioned the web and the internet. If the internet develops, broadband becomes commonplace and people watch television on their television but beamed to it by their computer that surely is the best way of providing this local service rather than having it as part of the BBC's broadcasting. I am not saying the BBC website cannot be used. It is already being used for exactly that sort of purpose. I do not see why you think it has to be television run rather than just using the internet as it develops for that purpose.

  Lord Puttnam: Simply time. I was very interested in what Dr Cleevely was saying. If you are prepared to wait five, six, seven or eight years, without doubt, you could get this type of broadband or cable direct to your PC. But it would be a pity to wait that long because the period between now and five years' time could be well spent discovering what does and does not work locally, what resources can be brought to bear, the degree to which, for example, local council meetings could be shown even planning decisions could be broadcast. There is a whole plethora of areas that I would like to see experimented with. It would be a shame if the delay was a technological one. I have no doubt whatsoever that in six or seven years' time that will be the chosen delivery route.

  Q1770  Lord Peston: The more we ask questions about spectrum and charging for it the less I seem to understand. We have been approaching spectrum as if it were a scarce resource and therefore the economists say that scarce means charge. To take an obvious example for your local stuff, if it were to go out on spectrum as opposed to broadband they would simply be priced out of this market. If they had to meet the market price of what you call Tesco TV and so on, it would mean that none of these people could operate at all.

  Lord Puttnam: One of the reasons I am pretty ambivalent about spectrum charging—I admire Martin Cave's report very much indeed—is that he has a series of targets, some of which are probably utterly legitimate. The Ministry of Defence would be one. The problem is the law of unintended consequences. If you took a rather broad brush on spectrum charging and applied it, for example, to the BBC you have an already relatively cynical public knowing full well that this is what's known in the film industry as double dipping. The public are having their pockets picked for a licence fee and that licence fee is being picked again so that money can go back to the Treasury. If the figure is indeed, let us say, 30 million, surely that 30 million could be far better spent on the sorts of services I have just described. It is peanuts when it gets to the Treasury. It creates cynicism in the electorate and potentially damages the BBC. In a sense, I suppose I now have to declare an interest. Channel 4 was a brilliant concept of a visionary Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw. It is a marginal organisation doing quite well at the moment. Three or four years from now it might be in some difficulty. The cost of spectrum to Channel 4 might be the very thing that tips it over into serious problems. Do you as a Committee really want to be looking at a situation in which you are being asked to recommend whether to release Channel 4 from some of its BSB obligations because it has been so hard pressed as a result of spectrum charging, using all the same arguments that ITV listed, or would you rather forego spectrum charging and know that you have a reasonably healthy Channel 4 moving forward. I certainly would be more than unhappy if a series of events was set in train by my government which resulted in the diminution let alone the elimination of Channel 4, which has proved such a spectacular success for the Conservative Party. That would be a very poor bargain and it would be a classic form of unintended consequence.

  Q1771  Lord Peston: I was following your lead on the local, which I found very impressive. I am surprised you call them unintended consequences since they are so obvious, it seems to me, that you have to regard them as intended consequences.

  Lord Puttnam: I do not think for one moment Professor Cave would be a happy man if he knew that he had been directly responsible for the collapse of Channel 4.

  Q1772  Lord Peston: If we take Channel 4, if we start from a logical position and you want Channel 4 in its public service context, it follows that you have to facilitate this happening. You can say you facilitate it happening because you are going to charge them but then you could give them the money back that you are charging them, which seems rather ridiculous. You are much better off just giving them the ability to do it in the first place. All you have done is create bureaucracy. I hope Channel 4 is not in danger but I am much more intrigued by your suggestions about all these local things which do require an approach which is a citizenship approach of "Let us facilitate this."

  Lord Puttnam: Of course you are right. It comes right back to the Chairman's question which is what sort of groupings might be put together that might facilitate community television. I would like to see this being community driven. I think that is where we will learn something and that is where the value will lie. If all of a sudden there were another unintended victim of a spectrum tax, where there was a requirement to put down £250,000 in a small area in order to pay the spectrum tax, I would argue that you begin to drift into what I am terming Tesco television because immediately the powerful player is the person, maybe a large retail outlet, who can come along and say, "I will pay the 250 but this is what I want. I want these advertising breaks and you can fit the programming in between." You will begin to have a different economic mix one that becomes principally driven by a fiscal imperative. From my perspective, that entirely misses the point.

  Q1773  Chairman: You argue you do not want Tesco television. You do not want council television either, do you?

  Lord Puttnam: No.

  Q1774  Chairman: I was a bit worried by one of those replies because if you are going to have genuine community television it is going to need to be independent and one of the things it is going to need to be independent of is councils.

  Lord Puttnam: Absolutely. This is why I suppose I am arguing against any fiscal imperative placed up front, which plays into the hands of any one of the vested interests, be it the local newspaper, the council or the dominant retail outlets. When I use the word "community" I mean community, a means by which communities can express who and what they are as freely and as honestly as possible, including holding the council to account.

  Q1775  Lord Maxton: Can I be slightly a devil's advocate here? That is fine if you talk about Tesco but what about John Smith, the local grocer, and George Brown at the local garage? Surely, if you are having this local television, one of the things people are entitled to get from it is what local commercial services are available to them.

  Lord Puttnam: I could not agree more. I am talking about the local dominant advertiser. It would be almost absurd to not allow local retail advertising. I was brought up in an era in which the cinema had those terrible slides that used to be pushed across the screen during the interval which promoted small local retailers. I am not suggesting we go back to that but I do think there should be a very good opportunity to promote local retail outlets. There is a lot of good stuff in the Building Public Value document but my argument against if is it assumes a level of professional output which I think will defeat the purpose behind real local access, but I would love to be proved wrong.

  Q1776  Chairman: You are obviously fairly sceptical about the BBC providing these services.

  Lord Puttnam: I am sceptical for two reasons. I am sceptical because I do not think they know how to do anything inexpensively and somewhat amateurishly. I use the word "amateurishly" as a positive, not a negative. I do not think they are very good at involving local communities on anything other than their (the BBC's) terms and working to their rules. They make poor partners. If I had a wish list of the things the BBC could better learn how to do, it would be partnerships. Lastly and most importantly, if they are remarkably successful in moving into this space it is likely to deter rather than help other people finding ways of putting this kind of community project together.

  Q1777  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Picking up on your scepticism about the BBC being involved in this, going back—

  Lord Puttnam: Not involved; dominating. I have no problem with the BBC being involved at all. I would want the BBC involved. I have a certain scepticism about the BBC dominating this space.

  Q1778  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You can imagine them being part of it?

  Lord Puttnam: Very much so.

  Q1779  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: One of your first answers was about how technology means that this can be so much cheaper than it has been up until now. The BBC is estimating the moves that they propose for the next Charter period to make their services more local will cost £55 million per annum. In the light of your comments about what you can buy at Dixons, does this seem a realistic sum of money?

  Lord Puttnam: I have tried to push the BBC on this and maybe you can be more successful than I have been. My concern is that, assuming some of these plans for buses and local community involvement are remarkably successful, how scaleable are they? What would happen if they are genuinely successful and we want to move from 15 or 115 buses to 1,500 buses or we want to move rather more rapidly in pursuing the local reach of the BBC? I cannot get a sense that the BBC's figures account for that level of scaleability. It is quite difficult to unravel what that will pay for let alone what happens if some or all of it takes off like a rocket.

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