Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1780 - 1799)

WEDNESDAY 11 JANUARY 2006

Lord Puttnam

  Q1780  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: You do not think they are over-estimating the cost?

  Lord Puttnam: No. The BBC are pretty good at costing what they do, they do overspend but they normally have some contingency for that.

  Q1781  Lord Maxton: Do you think the BBC should be involved in the digital switchover?

  Lord Puttnam: I do. It would be illogical for the BBC not to work with government in enhancing, encouraging and driving forward digital switchover. They know more about it. They are well resourced. They have the relationship with government and in a sense they have the public service remit to ensure that digital is made available to the poorest, least advantaged and geographically most challenged.

  Q1782  Lord Maxton: I can see that but why should the licence fee payer finance it? Why should not the rest of us pay for it?

  Lord Puttnam: That is a perfectly good question. In a sense, it is the reverse question of why the BBC should pay a spectrum charge. You are right. It does encourage cynicism on the part of the licence fee payer who feels, "Is this the very first phase of top slicing? Is this first bit of top slicing of the licence fee to pay for other things?" If it is, does it set the wrong precedent? It is a very correct question. On balance, if you are asking me should the BBC be engaged with the government in driving this forward, yes. Should it be paid for by the licence fee? I am not sure about that.

  Q1783  Lord Maxton: Personally, I have some reservations about the technology to be used. It may be that by 2012 the BBC will be a producer of programmes rather than a broadcaster and that we should be looking at other technologies to ensure that everybody has digital services rather than just digital television. Would you agree?

  Lord Puttnam: We may find it quite difficult to define what a broadcaster is by 2012. If by "broadcaster" we still include the key archivist, the organisation that makes material available, sometimes quite unusual material, if that still is a broadcaster, the BBC will retain that role. There is something very interesting happening in video and in publishing. It is not a diversion; it is fascinating. The average large book store carries 130,000 titles and sells about ten per cent of them on a regular basis; yet more than half of Amazon.com's book sales come from outside of its top 130,000 titles. What this indicates is that there is a market out there for material that is not available on the shelves but which people would like access to. I hope I am not complicating your question, I believe the bookshop analogy will hold up. Who will be the organisation—I think it will be a publisher/broadcaster—who will make available all of its products on demand? We can argue what demand might mean. I would probably still end up calling them a broadcaster. The BBC's resources increasingly will be available to all of us all of the time. I have an I-Pod Nano slightly smaller than this downstairs. I checked before coming up. I have 1,112 tracks on it. That is almost inconceivable when I look back 20 years to my first Walkman. I think television will move in exactly the same direction. That type of access will be available to us well within 20 years. I think 2012 is about right. But that would still be a broadcaster. I will still be relying on the BBC to call up my material.

  Q1784  Lord Maxton: I know it is technical but once you move on to mobile telephones, using the internet and broadband, you are talking about narrowcasting, not broadcasting, technically. Broadcasting implies something that is put out that everybody can watch if they turn on their television at that particular point in time. Narrowcasting implies that you watch it when you want to watch it and where you want to watch it. That is what you are describing in the second part of that answer.

  Lord Puttnam: Yes. That is where we will end up. There will be elements of broadcasting but essentially the market for narrowcasting will grow exponentially, whereas the market for broadcasting may well drop.

  Q1785  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Going back to the use of the licence fee for analogue switch-off, we have been hearing from quite a lot of people that the government is likely to get a considerable amount of money from the sale of spectrum. Should it not be using that money to pay for the analogue switch-off, rather than expecting the licence fee payer to?

  Lord Puttnam: Yes. I think that is a more appropriate source of funding.

  Q1786  Chairman: Your position is that the BBC should be a pivotal force, if you like, as far as switchover is concerned but the finance should come externally, not through the licence fee?

  Lord Puttnam: Yes. I am concerned about using the BBC internal resources to fund things which are essentially not related specifically to the output of the BBC because I think we are there setting a hare running and sooner or later someone is going to suggest more that is similar and we will be seriously into the top slicing argument, which is a completely different debate.

  Q1787  Bishop of Manchester: One of the things we have talked about quite a lot in this Committee is the proposal that has been made about Manchester. There are three areas I would be very grateful to you for sharing your views on. The first is that the costs of the move have seemed quite enormous. As time has progressed, the projected costs seem to have come down a little. Nevertheless, that is an area of concern. The second point you made earlier about the local community is how far it is realistic for the BBC to be saying that the move to a shared hub in Manchester would be of enormous benefit to the local community. Thirdly, in the light of the points you have made about the BBC's very poor reputation in sharing—that is a point that has been made by other people as well—what chances do you think the proposal has for success anyway as a concept of sharing between the BBC, ITV and the independents?

  Lord Puttnam: My experience of moving centres of activity is that it is, to all intents and purposes, illusory unless you also move the decision making process and the financial clout that goes with it. Why do I say that? When I went into the film industry in the late 1960s, people talked about Hollywood. No decision was made in Hollywood. All the decisions in the film industry were made in New York. It was not until the mid-1970s when, for their own reasons, partly property based, the studios moved to the west coast and the decision making processes began to take place in Hollywood. The decision to move sport to Manchester is a good and very positive one. It is the sort of shift I would like to see take place rather more generally in this country. I will not be totally convinced until I know that the head of sport is living there, that the decisions are being made round a table in Manchester and that the resources that fund those decisions are also available in a bank in Manchester. I do not like token regionalism. I think it is bad for the regions and for everyone involved. I am very much in favour of moving the non-metropolitan aspect, particularly of the BBC, out. I work a lot in the north east and I would like to see much more take place in the north east, but the north east will only have the confidence to perform as I believe it could once the decisions the resources and the mistakes can all be made there. That is another very important point. Regions must step up, have the ability to make decisions, face their mistakes and solve them. I am not sure nationally we have come to that point.

  Q1788  Bishop of Manchester: It has certainly been the experience in the religion and ethics department which moved to Manchester much earlier that they felt very distanced from where decisions are made. It would be very unhelpful if that kind of experience were to be repeated in the sports area. I think there is a view among some people that when the move is made to the hub, if it does happen, departments like religion and ethics will disappear or be changed. Could you share with us your views about the kind of things that you see happening in this proposed hub? How would it work between the BBC, ITV and the independents?

  Lord Puttnam: I think it could work in niche areas but not without enormous difficulty. Can I go back to the period when I was at Anglia? I was chairman of a wonderful subsidiary called Survival. We made wildlife films. It was a very successful small company. Because so much of Survival related to footage we had commissioned, we used to own our archives which was quite unusual. I spent a lot of time dealing with BBC Bristol to try to create a national wildlife archive. It seemed to me to be completely sensible—there were only three players, the BBC, a small organisation owned by HTV in those days, and ourselves—to pull that together as a comprehensive archive seemed to make the greatest sense—but it proved absolutely impossible. Everyone had their own reasons why this had to be here and you could not possibly move that to there. You were led to understand that if we had got rid of this or that warehouse in Swindon the entire nation would collapse. I became pretty cynical about the excuses for putting things together. It would be a first in broadcasting to get independents and the major players to work together harmoniously to an improved end product. It might save costs along the way but I do not believe the end product would be enhanced or improved.

  Q1789  Chairman: That depends on the BBC.

  Lord Puttnam: Entirely.

  Q1790  Chairman: Is it a two way thing? Is it just that the BBC are bad partners?

  Lord Puttnam: I am afraid so. I can only repeat that, in my experience, they do not know how to do it. It is not part of their culture. Lord Kalms will have his own experiences. There are businessmen who cannot be partners. It is not that they do not want to be; they just do not know how to be a partner. They know how to use someone else's money in a joint venture but they do not know how to be a partner.

  Q1791  Bishop of Manchester: If this is going to cost as much as people are saying and you are telling us that you do not think it is going to work, ought not the plug to be pulled on the idea?

  Lord Puttnam: I would be sorry if that happened because there are people who are very keen to move sport to Manchester. I think there is enough impetus—there certainly was under Greg Dyke—to do it properly, to re-locate it there, put the management and resources there and make the decisions there. Whether there has been some backsliding since Greg went I do not know but it would be a pity if the idea was allowed to atrophy.

  Q1792  Bishop of Manchester: It would be a good idea?

  Lord Puttnam: Yes.

  Q1793  Chairman: There are two issues, are there not? There is the issue of putting sport and other things there and there is the issue of the shared production at the hub. The two perhaps are not the same.

  Lord Puttnam: It will only work if the BBC are prepared to relinquish a fair amount of control and I suppose what I am saying is I think they are going to find that agony.

  Q1794  Bishop of Manchester: Interestingly, Charles Allen is very enthusiastic about the idea.

  Lord Puttnam: It is a win win for Charles Allen. It is hard to convince the BBC it is a win win.

  Q1795  Chairman: Why is it a win win for Charles Allen?

  Lord Puttnam: Because he lowers his costs. I do not think he feels all that proprietorial about the decision making issues and again it is a different culture. Charles Allen is a deal maker. He knows how to make a deal and he knows how to walk away from the details having made it.

  Q1796  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: As you know, in our first report we suggested that Ofcom should have comparable powers for content regulation to the BBC and other PS broadcasters. Would you agree with that recommendation? Do you think that would add a sensible form of regulation to the BBC or do you think it would be a little different?

  Lord Puttnam: Ironically, in view of what I have been saying, I am not a supporter of that. There are two reasons. The core suggestions the BBC are making along the lines of the Michael Grade Trust concept are worth a go. I am not sure it will work but I certainly think it is worth a run. Conversely, Ofcom is a very young organisation with an enormously broad remit. There is a lot of work to do and I frankly think it could do without the additional responsibility of the BBC for the time being. I am on record as saying that I think there is a strong argument for a mid-term review. I would not blame the BBC if eyes went to heaven at the idea of a mid-term review. I would rather see something more. I would like to see the trust itself commit to commissioning some form of peer review of those areas in which the public value test is involved. I have a shortlist: certainly its commitment to training and training for the entire industry. I am not comfortable with the idea that the BBC decides itself how well it is fulfilling its commitment to the rest of the industry. I would like to see that peer reviewed and I would like to see that peer review published. In the area of curricular support, there is no reason at all why the Trust should not have a rolling contract with the Institution of Education to appraise the BBC's performance in this area of educational output, comment on it and publish their appraisal. Diversity would be another one. Parliamentary coverage might be another. These are key areas of public value that the BBC is responsible for and where it cannot honestly, without blushing, make the argument that it could be the judge and jury of how successfully these are being carried out.

  Q1797  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: This is to take the notion of content regulation very much further than the Ofcom definition of content regulation which was extremely minimal and perhaps even so a burden too far extended to the BBC. Your notion is a diversity of forms of peer review, not just the National Audit Office and Ofcom?

  Lord Puttnam: Yes. I am an enormous fan of expert peer review. Training is a very good example because there are people who really do understand where this industry is going, what the needs of 2012 are likely to be and whether there is going to be a sufficiency of this or that type of training. I am not prepared to trust the Corporation with this enormous responsibility, with no one commenting annually as to whether it is meeting its targets because they are in themselves shifting targets. We are talking about 2012 and maybe 2020 and all of a sudden we could find ourselves with a really serious skills deficit. These things have to be monitored, analysed and commented on and that cannot be done by the Trust. It can be commissioned and published by the Trust but it has to be carried out by someone who really knows their business.

  Q1798  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Quite apart from suggesting that Ofcom should take over the review of content, one of the comments you made was that the whole of the Content Board might need a little reappraisal. I wonder if you have any views on how you see the workings of the Content Board?

  Lord Puttnam: We fought jolly hard to get it and to give it some teeth. With the change over in Chair, this would probably be a good moment to appraise the performance and work out whether it is doing the job. It is a little large. I am not a great fan of rather crude, regional representation. For me it is rather like a football team. Yes, it maybe a good idea to have a Chinese fullback but it is also a good idea if he is a good fullback. I would really like to think that everyone on the board is appraised for their skill set as well as their representational value. My concern is that on the one occasion when the Content Board in its area if responsibility advised the main board that it was making a mistake it was ignored. That was over the removal of the totality of the ITV PSB obligations. That is a pity. Whilst I gather it was done pleasantly at the time, it would be quite nice to see the two conflicting arguments put side by side, to be assessed possibly by yourselves. There has been an important development which is that the Content Board's recommendations appear in the main board minutes. That is a very important and could be a significant development. That is one to applaud but it would be a great pity if the Content Board somehow gets reduced to being a mere advisory attachment to the main board.

  Q1799  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: One of the hopes that we had when we were putting forward this idea of a strengthened Content Board was that somehow the Content Board would be more accountable and more open to licence fee payers, which is the group who clearly feel very strongly about issues of content. Can you see any way in which that could be done?

  Lord Puttnam: You and I have met the Consumer Panel and I think we were both rather impressed by the seriousness with which they are taking their job. The key here is the relationship between the Consumer Panel and the Content Board. It is a fairly clumsy structure. No one invented it; no one really wanted it; it was something of a lash up. There is no question about that. But so long as there is a decent relationship between the Consumer Panel and the Content Board, as long as the Content Board is taken seriously, as long as the views of the Content Board become public through the publication of the minutes, that is probably in the short term as good as we are going to get.


 
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