Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1920
TUESDAY 17 JANUARY 2006
James Purnell MP
Q1920 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
I want to turn to local services. In fact we have heard some comments
that the BBC is not a very good partner; it prefers to do things
in its own way and on its own terms, but we have also of course
heard if they do go local in this way it may well inhibit the
development of competitive commercial services or indeed damage
existing services. I just wondered what your view is about this
because obviously this is an area where with the new technology
and so on there are a lot of opportunities so what sort of role
really should the BBC sensibly be playing?
James Purnell: Our view is that this is an area
where the public value test is extremely important and we would
expect the launch of any new tier of ultra local services to be
subject to a public value test, whether it happens before or after
the Charter is in operation. I think local TV does illustrate
why the public value test is so important because there are lots
of different considerations here. There are issues about the impact
on local newspapers and local broadcasting services. There is
also the issue of the licence fee payer and services they expect,
the fact that the BBC already has an infrastructure providing
this content which could be very efficiently used to support public
benefit in terms of spreading that value around. One could imagine
all sorts of services which local communities would benefit from
having. Coverage of local authority decisions which are often
underreported. Looking, in my region, at how cultural events are
developing, for example, local Rugby League, we often feel that
Rugby League is not focused on as much as football. There is a
whole range of services where there might be a real public value
and if the Government were trying to take those decisions or Ofcom
were trying to take those decisions it might not be in the right
position to weigh that public value against the market impact.
That is why we said in the Green Paper we thought the ultimate
decisions about the public value of those services and whether
they outweighed the market impact should be taken by the Trust.
I think the point you make about partnerships is important and
I think that would be a fair point to make about the BBC over
a longer period. I have quite a lot of the BBC's partners now
coming to me and saying they have really noticed a difference
(not in everything) a real difference. Pact, for example, have
been very appreciative of what has been developed on the WOK(?).
The Film Council are working closely with the BBC to develop their
film strategy. In Wales and Scotland there are again productive
discussions around national language provision. So partnership
is clearly a very, very important part of what the BBC does and
we would encourage them to continue to improve their record.
Q1921 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
That is the other argument of course for having more local offices
too for the BBC and a more local presenceand I am thinking
of a visit that we did to Bristol where we saw quite a lot of
interaction between schools and the BBC and a lot of encouragement
to use the creative side of the BBC for that.
James Purnell: There is clearly a real potential
for public value there and we will need to set up a framework
in which they can judge that properly against the market impact.
There are also genuine considerations that I can see.
Q1922 Lord Kalms:
Listening to the some of the advice we have had from different
people who have contributed to our discussions, I think there
is a slight problem regarding local broadcasting and local services.
If the BBC are committed to 60 local stations and they are perhaps
going to choose the footprint of the radio areas, which for a
start may not mean entirely local, and then the concept is that
they may impose what they call local so instead of creating local
it might be imposed local. The point I want to make to you is
what contra force is there going to be to make sure that there
is not this concept of the BBC steamroller with 60 stations with
one footprint which might not produce the local bottom-up concept
that is more desirable for our listeners and for our viewers?
I am not sure that if the BBC is allowed to run untrammelled we
will get the best product. Are you concerned about this potential
danger that by going into local broadcasting we will not get the
James Purnell: I am concerned about putting
in place a process or mechanism to ensure that management are
not untrammelled in those decisions. Indeed, Tessa Jowell made
an extremely important decision on BBC Three in rejecting the
original application for that and I think the service which has
emerged since is much more in line with the BBC's public service
objective than it would have been. I think that experience ought
to have taught us the Minister taking that decision is slightly
uncomfortable (although she took what I thought was very much
the right decision) and that is why creating the Trust with the
right level of understanding of the BBC's objectives and the right
incentives in terms of accountability to licence fee payers but
also being trustees of the market impact and making sure that
they do not have an unjustifiable market impact, is the right
place to locate those decisions. Thus decisions about exactly
how local it should be, should it cover Stalybridge and Hythe
or Manchester or the North West will be, quite rightly, decisions
taken by the management of the Trust working through the public
value test mechanism.
Q1923 Lord Peston:
I, at least, was very impressed with David Puttnam's evidence
to us last week where he essentially told us that the BBC does
not do partnership; it is either done their way or not at all.
I could be wrong but he was our evidence, as it were, therefore
it seemed to me to follow that it would be in the national interest
if somehow one facilitated the growth of local service broadcasting
in some other way, I thought your reference to local newspapers
was a rather relevant one here because we do not subsidise local
newspaper and they are successful a) because they are good and
b) because they carry advertising. Would it be your view that
if a local body wanted to get together (and again one accepts
your view that if you want spectrum to be used efficiently you
must price it in some way or other) that some of this local broadcasting,
whether it is radio or more importantly television, could be advertising
financed even if it were run say by the local authority? Has that
been at all a part of the Department's thinking?
James Purnell: A mixed ecology of local services
is definitely a part of our thinking. There are already a dozen
television stations around the country which are doing quite well
and I think that is an area which is going to continue to grow,
through the Internet, with people providing audio-visual services
over the Internet, so there will be a commercial role in this.
There will also be an important role for partnership. The provision
of local content is obviously enhanced by working with local authorities
and local groups. I think the danger of the BBC taking advertising
Q1924 Lord Peston:
I do not mean the BBC; I mean the non BBC. If you and I decided
we wanted to set up a local station, just us, the equivalent of
a local newspaper, we would have to finance it in some way, a
fortiori we would have to finance it if we had to pay for
the spectrum, and the only way we could finance it would be by
advertising. In other words, could one have the equivalent of
a local newspaper in this area, is what I am asking you?
James Purnell: Of course, and the economic viability
of those services is a really important question. We have commissioned
research with Ofcom which will be published very shortly on whether
there is an economically viable model and I think there is real
Q1925 Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
We have spent a lot of the last month thinking about the sale
of sports rights and sports broadcasting and the BBC's role in
it. I wanted to ask you a little bit about the Premier League's
agreement to market rights in six packages following a ruling
by the European Commission. First, did the Government make any
representations to the European Commission in the process leading
up to that decision?
James Purnell: We always wanted the parties
to come in an ideal world to an amicable arrangement and we always
made it clear to all parties including the Commission two things
really. One is we believe collective selling is important for
football. That was the case for the previous review by the Commission
and indeed for this one. Indeed, we also said that we thought
that collective selling was particularly important because it
could support redistribution within the game. That is most obviously
the case with the Football Foundation which supports grassroots
football but also with a range of other initiatives within football.
We made our general policy stance clear. It is not our policy
to intervene in competition cases. That is clearly a mater for
the Commission and that would be exactly the same whether it was
an Ofcom review, OFT or the Commission (as in this case) as competition
Q1926 Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
Do you think six packages of which five may go to a single bidder
represents a genuine protection of the public interest in free-to-air
access to live Premier League football?
James Purnell: I think having a competition
regulator which makes decisions independently of us is the right
way to do it.
Q1927 Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
You would merely say process okay; outcome let's see?
James Purnell: It would be odd in one sentence
to say that we think competition commission decisions should be
taken independently and then go round saying we think they should
have done this or that.
Q1928 Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve:
I take that point but you have no view whatsoever on whether anything
can be foreseen about committing five of six packages of equal
value to go to a single bidder? If they did in fact go to a single
bidder would you consider that showed it had been an inadequate
James Purnell: I give you exactly the same answer
I just gave you which is that competition decisions should be
taken independently of government and if the competition commission,
whichever one, the European or national one, started to think
we are going to double-guess them once they taken those decisions
that will inhibit their ability to take those decisions. I am
interested in the benefit that collective selling can bring and
in redistribution within football and if there is a benefit in
terms of competition and therefore the TV consumer but also in
terms of football and therefore the football fan and people who
play football, then that would be a good policy outcome.
But you do not make any proposals and you did not actually put
anything before the Commission leading them to the kind of position
that you yourself would want?
James Purnell: No we have set out our policy
stance and we encourage all partners to come to an amicable arrangement.
Nothing more specific than that.
James Purnell: No, as I say, our general view
was these are public policy objectives. There was an important
discussion both in the last deal and indeed in this one which
was about whether the Commission was able to weigh those general
public policy objectives against competition policy and we believed
that they could and that is why we made those views clear.
Chairman: I am going to call on Baroness
Gibson to talk about religious broadcasting in a moment but just
to say this, I am very much aware that you need to be away by
quarter to six and I am also aware of the fact that a Minister
is at this moment summing up in the House of Lords so we may get
interrupted by a division and if we do get interrupted by a division
(because past experience shows I cannot speak above the bell in
this place) we will call it a day. Lady Gibson?
Q1931 Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen:
It is the thorny question of religious broadcasting which does
seem to elicit very strong responses in people. Obviously the
whole question of religion is very important in world affairs
at the moment. Do you think that the BBC should be given a specific
public service duty to a) educate and b) inform the public about
the role of the major religions?
James Purnell: Yes, we do. We believe they have
that obligation effectively now. They have got a duty on education
and they have got a duty on religion. If there are specific ways
in which you think that should be financed we are able to look
at that in the joint Charter and Agreement but we think broadly
that that is the thrust of their duty in this area.
Q1932 Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen:
And what about the position of the three minutes of religious
broadcasting at the moment that occurs every morning? There has
been quite a lot of discussion about whether or not this should
be purely a religious spot or whether it should be opened to,
shall we say, atheists who would be able to put some view forward.
James Purnell: It would be a dangerous setting
of precedent for a government minister to get involved in telling
the Today programme what to broadcast and so I am not going
to breach that precedent. I saw the evidence which the BBC provided
to you which was that this is an opportunity for religious thought
to be discussed in the context of a set of programmes on the BBC
where many other non-religious views get their opportunity to
be aired elsewhere. That is one view. If the BBC decided they
wanted to have secular views as part of the Thought for the
Day again that would be an editorial decision for them and
I think it is important that ministers do not get involved in
telling the BBC what to broadcast.
Q1933 Bishop of Manchester:
I am interested in what Mr Purnell said about that because as
the Charter and Agreement is being put together the opportunity
might arise for input on this issue. I am wondering what he particularly
had in mind over that in terms of process?
James Purnell: In the Charter and Agreement?
Q1934 Bishop of Manchester:
James Purnell: We will publish the draft Charter
and Agreement at the same time as the White Paper and we very
much hope that there will be an opportunity for debate in both
the House of Commons and the House of Lords. That will obviously
be up to the House authorities, not us. The White Paper be will
be a statement of our policy on it. There will be opportunities
then to look at the way that is reflected in the Charter and Agreement
so there are opportunities to reflect the new recommendations
that you make or indeed any points made in other debate by other
Q1935 Bishop of Manchester:
In light of the recent statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer
that we need to be more upfront about our Britishness, would you
think it appropriate for the British Broadcasting Corporation
to allow proper time for views and education on other faiths in
this country, those who have no faith view, and also that there
then should be an adequate and proper representation of the view
of that particular faith which has been part of our culture for
about 1,700 years and which in the national Census 72 per cent
of the population in this country said that they supported? In
other words, what I am trying to say is in this very complex area
we do need to be fair and even-handed but the even-handedness
must also reflect the very substantial place that Christianity
has within this country?
James Purnell: Of course, and again those decisions
are properly taken by the BBC in deciding exactly what programmes
they make and how to reflect that. They also need to consult people
who are experts on this issue to make sure that those services
are up-to-date. I do not think I dissent from the general thrust
of what you say.
Okay, I am going to draw it to an end at this particular point.
Allow me to say that when you mentioned that the White Paper would
be presented and there would be debate in the House of Commons
and debate in the House of Lords, that does beg quite a number
of questions. For instance, there is nothing much the House of
Commons or the House of Lords can do about it. As you well know
from our first report, it is not an Act of Parliament and nothing
that is going to be proposed is going to go through, in any meaningful
way, either the House of Commons or the House of Lords.
James Purnell: There is a slight danger of the
parliamentary equivalent of double jeopardy here but if I could
just repeat what we said previously about it which is that we
believe if you look at what licence fee payers said when they
were consulted about this they did not want the new arrangements
to bring the BBC closer to Parliament. They thought that would
not be the appropriate thing. It is a delicate balance in preserving
the BBC's independence. I believe we have a system that has worked
well. The fact that they are not incorporated by statute but by
Charter means that they do not have the day-to-day accountability
to Parliament which could end up influencing their independence.
I think that settlement has worked well and that is why we propose
to maintain the current system. That was our proposal in the Green
Paper and we will make our final decisions on that clear in the
I think, if you do not mind me saying so, to rely upon the opinion
polls that you have just quoted is a pretty slender fence when
you look at the detail of that because they neither seem to trust
Parliament nor the Government as far as that is concerned!
James Purnell: But the question is is there
a problem, has this situation which has developed over many decades
under many different governments managed to deliver a BBC which
is independent and trusted editorially around the world? And I
think it has and that is why we would propose to maintain that.
That sounds to me as though we will not have to wait to see your
response to the White Paper to get your final position.
James Purnell: We will make our final decisions
clear in the White Paper.
Chairman: Okay you have been very patient.
Thank you very much indeed for coming. Thank you very much indeed
for your evidence, we are very grateful.