Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1920 - 1938)


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 presence—and 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 best outcome?

  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 potential there.

  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 regulator.

  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 decision?

  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.

  Q1929  Chairman: 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.

  Q1930  Chairman: 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: Yes.

  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 voices.

  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.

  Q1936  Chairman: 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 White Paper.

  Q1937  Chairman: 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.

  Q1938  Chairman: 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.

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