Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1761
WEDNESDAY 11 JANUARY 2006
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
beI remember you made an analogy between Chelmsford and
Northamptona 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.
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.
Has a market survey been done in this country to see if there
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.
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 thinkI do not think it will
happenthat 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
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
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
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 chargingI admire Martin Cave's
report very much indeedis 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
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.
You argue you do not want Tesco television. You do not want council
television either, do you?
Lord Puttnam: No.
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
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
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.
You are obviously fairly sceptical about the BBC providing these
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
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.