Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1800 - 1810)

WEDNESDAY 11 JANUARY 2006

Lord Puttnam

  Q1800  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Would there be any case for holding some of the hearings in public?

  Lord Puttnam: There would. It may be better that there should be a public annual review, an ability for stakeholders—an awful phrase—to be able to turn up and question the Content Board on the decisions that have been made and the pressures they find themselves working under. I have been chair of enough meetings to know that whilst it is a lovely idea, in practice it can be a nightmare.

  Q1801  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: I understand that you are in favour of an annual appraisal of the BBC or certain parts of it. Could you expand on your thoughts on that, particularly in relation to how it would work?

  Lord Puttnam: For the first five years I would like to see a statement from the trust acknowledging the fact that they have a tremendous amount of evidence of performance in a number of specific areas, a lot of experience of performance in these areas, but that there are other areas, which we tend to refer to as public value areas in which they have a limited ability to oversee and appraise. This is where my concept of a peer review comes from. In those areas, they should go out and seek really good advice. Were it me, if I were Michael Grade, I would go along to the Institution of Education and say, "We would like a contract with you for the next three years on a rolling basis. You appraise our education output. Look at the intention that lies behind it. Look at the budgets—look at the outcomes and tell us if it is working. Are we really supporting schools as well as we could?" It would effectively become the interface between the measurable impact of the BBC's output on education and the people who are making the programmes. Some very interesting things could well begin to emerge. Nothing like this really existed. The BBC will say quite seriously, "We talk to the education world all the time. We have a deep relationship with the education world." Yes, and No. If the trust would show a willingness to acknowledge that it cannot be expert in every area and it is prepared to take expert advice and publish that advice and back it in the form of improved output, I would have thought the trust would have done itself an enormous favour.

  Q1802  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: You do not think annually is too short a period of time?

  Lord Puttnam: Personally, I would prefer a rolling review, certainly in the case of education which is the area I am most familiar with. So many things just do not happen annually. What one might have is an annual report to the trust, which the trust would then publish.

  Q1803  Lord Peston: One is very sympathetic to the examples you give but would it not also be useful if there existed a committee like this Committee which every year would have the BBC before it to say, "We are very puzzled, for example, as to why you did not bid for one of the six football packages" and things like that? Would that also be included in your need for the BBC to explain itself more generally?

  Lord Puttnam: Absolutely. There is no serious argument for not having a permanent select committee looking at these issues. This is an important area of public life. This Committee is perfectly able to do it; it has the resources to do it and it is a very good way of going about it. You are seeing Michael Grade this week. If I were Michael Grade, I would welcome the opportunity to explain myself to people who have the time and the interest and who probably share my values. I have never really understood the reluctance on the part of people in public life to appear before select committees. It seems extraordinary to me. When I was chair of NESTA I used to look forward to select committee hearings because it gave a real opportunity to air your problems and grievances. If you have a reasonably sympathetic chairman and informed members, it is a marvellous way of getting out into the media some of the problems that are worrying you.

  Q1804  Lord Maxton: The BBC already produces an annual report. Annually, the chairman and the director general appear along with other members of staff before the House of Commons select committee and answer very difficult questions on that report. I do not think we want to run away with the idea that nothing happens at present.

  Lord Puttnam: I am not. Qualitatively, what is likely to come from a standing committee in the House of Lords will be somewhat different from the House of Commons committee because your agendas are necessarily slightly different. You are more a fan of the previous chairman than I am but I felt that the House of Commons committee had at times unnecessarily hostile agenda and certainly it was felt to be a hostile agenda at the BBC.

  Q1805  Lord Maxton: Not by everybody.

  Lord Puttnam: No, but among people at the BBC. That is not helpful. As chair of an organisation, again my experience was at NESTA. Yes, you are prepared to take hostile questions but you are also looking for support when the answers you offer are good and valid they deserve backing. That is the reason to be there, to seek support for the things that are most vexing.

  Chairman: Lord Maxton is a well known refugee from the Commons committee.

  Q1806  Lord Kalms: I very much enjoyed reading the speech. It is a very good insight into the BBC and the way you described it rather amused me. I want to come back to the theme of your speech which is about local content. At some stage in our report will have to deal with this. It struck me that you were being somewhat over-ambitious. You said you felt you could fill most of the time in that local slot with local news. I would assume that you are going to run local news from six in the morning, say, until midnight. It seems to me that you were talking about a few news reports downloaded from other programmes, but would it not be more likely that you could achieve what you wanted if you did not aim so high? I rather suspect what you are asking is just going to be a no no, whereas we could insist, for instance, on the BBC giving you, say, three hours local. In other words, aim a bit lower and hopefully achieve something. If the BBC, on the basis of low cost, had to provide three hours locally for areas, would that not be a more likely target to achieve rather than insisting they give a whole dedicated programme? Surely all day locally would be a bit mind boggling? You can watch a local football match and the local council but you are talking about filling a lot of slots every day, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. That could be from famine to over-indulgent feast.

  Lord Puttnam: There would be a lot of repeats. I do not mean that in a negative sense at all. Take my example of a weddings programme and let us say it is one hour. There is no reason at all why it should not be three afternoons a week because people do dip in and out. Many women particularly work part time, so you schedule it to ensure that in any given week there is a very good chance that any woman working in that locality had an opportunity to view it. Yes, there would be quite a lot of repeats but my concern about it being a three hour opt out of the BBC is honestly to do with the fact that unless we try to build this bottom up, unless you give people a chance locally to express themselves in their own time and in their own way, we will always get back to this national, top down concept of what television is. "This is what we are going to do. This is what is good for you. These are the questions we will ask you and we will do it beautifully and professionally." I am suggesting that there is a different form of television that you have made possible through technology. I do not know if it will work but I would love to see it happen in my lifetime and find out what communities are capable of. I live in west Cork, in Ireland, and we have an enormously thriving farmers' market. Every one of those people has a story. We have for example a very successful cheese maker in west Cork. We come together on a Saturday and if I miss the farmers' market I miss out on what is happening in my locality each week. That is where we find out about each other. All I am suggesting is I think there is a thirst for local knowledge and a thirst among people to have a sense of who their community is and what members of their community are doing, which inevitably national or even large regional broadcasters tend to trivialise.

  Q1807  Lord Kalms: If you have this idea that you want to incorporate local programmes, why do you not try and sow the seed and plant the seed into it? If we insisted or recommended that there were so many hours of local and that seed is planted, if it is a good idea it would develop and go from three hours to six. It would become totally local. I am trying to transplant the seed into the BBC's mind following your suggestion, which is excellent and which I totally support. You must have a content of one, two, three or four hours a day or so many hours a week of pure local stuff. Plant the seed. Argue that planting of the seed and you might get somewhere. Argue your case for total dedication and I can see a resistance from the BBC. "It is a good idea but come back later, son."

  Lord Puttnam: I have been to Hull where the BBC has a very good centre indeed because of the history of the way the telecom market developed in Hull. The BBC have used it as a test bed. A lot of what they do is very good but it is very clearly BBC driven, driven from the centre. I do not get a strong sense of the voice of the people of Hull dominating that the output. At the end of the day, I am a deal maker but I would love to see at least an attempt made to see what happens when you take a housing estate and get it to look at itself, look at its problems, identify who its heroes and villains are and see what happens. We have the technology, we have the resources, the wit and wisdom to do it. All we need is the will. In the end of course I will settle for whatever deal is possible.

  Q1808  Chairman: Going from the local to the rather bigger stage, the World Service to which you refer in one of your memoranda and of which you appear to be a great admirer, have you had any views on the idea of this Arab language service being introduced and whether the funding for that is going to be adequate?

  Lord Puttnam: I talked to Richard Sandbrook who is responsible for it and my sense is that, yes, the resources will be adequate and that there is quite a lot of regret within the BBC about the cuts that had to be made in order to do it. It was a decision made at the top. I am not so much worried about resources. I am worried about the precedent that it sets, that we begin to trim away the World Service in areas that are seen to be "non-essential" in order to focus on areas which are seen to be politically sensitive or even politically essential. I would have thought that if there was an overwhelming argument for an Arab service television station to be supported by the BBC then we are a big enough and ugly enough nation to be able to resource it without cuts but I do not know enough about the detail.

  Q1809  Chairman: You would argue for additional resources?

  Lord Puttnam: Yes. Just to show that even the oldest product can have new life, The Wizard of Oz was made the year before I was born and has been watched by people ever since. This D.V.D version went into the shops yesterday. It is possible to give new life to even the oldest concepts.

  Q1810  Chairman: You are the only person who, in our evidence so far, has brought along a sort of teaching aid. Thank you very much for coming. We have enjoyed your evidence, as always. Perhaps if we have any other points we can come back to you.

  Lord Puttnam: Thank you for listening to me.




 
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