Select Committee on BBC Charter Review Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2080 - 2093)

TUESDAY 24 JANUARY 2006

Ms Jocelyn Hay CBE and Mr Robert Clark

  Q2080  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Would the Voice of the Listener and Viewer be keen on the National Audit Office looking at this?

  Ms Hay: I think we need transparency from the BBC and they themselves, I think, should show the benefits and show some of the costs as well as the benefits of such a major move. Whether in fact the cost, as I understand it, of building a new headquarters in Manchester is going to be the best way of using that money and make sure that it does not turn out to be another white elephant; because the BBC has a record of investing in new projects, building projects, and then successive chairmen or directors general change the policy. I am not sure that it is necessarily the best thing, but we have not yet seen all the arguments, costs and figures, and it is open to question. It is very much up to the BBC to prove its case, I think, , looking at experience that it has already had of moving some departments out of London.

  Q2081  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I think that they have not, in fact, fully committed to Manchester at this point and are waiting for the licence fee settlement. Do you think that I something that is causing difficulty, particularly, of course, for those departments that may move from Manchester and for Manchester that no decision is made?

  Ms Hay: Certainty is something that would help any planning process, because the more certainty you have got the longer your planning can be. The question you had put to me—in how written question—was whether this was not a form of blackmail.

  Q2082  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: I think that is a slightly strong way to put the question; I so fend it?

  Ms Hay: Yes. I do not know that it is that, but I certainly think that the costs as well as the benefits should be transparent and be debated.

  Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve: Thank you very much.

  Q2083  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: One of the down sides of not being transparent is that you get selective exposure, as the BBC have this week about their expenses, which seems to involve a rather excessive amount of travelling according to the newspapers?

  Ms Hay: Yes.

  Q2084  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: As well as move to Manchester the BBC is planning to spend £400 million on new ultra news and television services. Do you agree with this idea? Lord Puttnam, who appeared in front of us, likes it but is sceptical that the BBC is the type of organisation that can actually tap into the local. He thinks they are potentially envisaging a professionalisation of local rather than improvisation of local.

  Ms Hay: I do not know. Again, I think it is something that should involve more pilot schemes, and more experience before they invest the total amount. I think when the BBC moved into local radio they invested in some pilot projects, because it is very difficult in advance to predict what kind of service viewers will take up, until they have actually experienced them. Some people will say they would like it, some will say they would not, but until they have actually experienced it, they do not know. Predictive research is always very unreliable and very speculative. I think here what would be most cost effective and most beneficial is if the BBC tried some pilot schemes. The ones they have started are too recent to provide any proper figures, but, on the basis of some of those and one or two more, they should provide progressively rather than invest the whole amount in one go initially.

  Q2085  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: But you do not share the scepticism about the BBC's ability to work with others?

  Ms Hay: I do not think so. I think BBC local radio, in the face of a great deal of criticism when it was first mooted, has proved immensely popular and successful. But it has taken time for that audience to grow and it is now totally different to the commercial local radio offering.

  Q2086  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: What I wanted to ask you was what your reaction was in one way to our first report, because I think you will have seen, we suggested that if Ofcom, which seems sensible to this Committee, was to take on additional regulation of the BBC then there would be a need to strengthen the content and be more open and transparent to the licence fee payer. I wondered what you thought of that reaction. I should say that their view was it would make them less effective, because the consumer panel we suggested as a parallel was less powerful, even though rather more open, they could see what we are were getting at, but less powerful because they were reporting direct to Ofcom and to nobody else.

  Ms Hay: The content board.

  Q2087  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: No.

  Ms Hay: The consumer panel.

  Q2088  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: The consumer panel.

  Ms Hay: It is an advisory panel.

  Q2089  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: The Chairman of the content board is vice chair of the whole set up. What your view is of the content of the board if you have got one?

  Ms Hay: We have heard remarkably little about the activities of the Contents Board, and I think that is a bit disappointing. It is very difficult to see exactly what they have been doing because most of Ofcom's communications are conducted on their website rather than in any other way and it is not a particular user-friendly website. I do not know if I am alone, but I personally find it irksome to have to stop what I am doing, log on, go through a slightly tedious website then print off what I want to keep and so on. I do not think it is user friendly. The Content Board, as I say, we have not heard a lot of. It is not easy to find out what they are doing. The main board ignored one of the recommendations that the Content Board made. We had Stephen Carter, Ofcom's Chief Executive, speaking at our conference in November and he confirmed that when the content board recommended that the main board's decision to relieve ITV of its responsibilities in regard to non-news regional programming, the Content Board opposed it and said it should be delayed for one year but the main board overrode them. So I do not know what influence the Content Board has with the main board. In Ofcom's work plan last year the Content Board was scarcely mentioned. It was only mentioned one diagram, nowhere else. So Ofcom is not as transparent in its working as it might be. Therefore it is difficult to know exactly what it is doing. The Content Board handles complaints, but again it is difficult to know exactly how those are handled. It is not as easy as it used to be with the Broadcasting Standards Commissin to see what the content board is actually doing.

  Q2090  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Have you got any suggestions of how that could be remedied?

  Ms Hay: We would like to see it more transparent.

  Q2091  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: How?

  Ms Hay: If it could publish reports of what it has done. Presumably you have interviewed members of the Content Board here, have you?

  Q2092  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: The Chairman was certainly here at the early part, yes.

  Ms Hay: We have had members of the Content Board speaking at different conferences, including our conference on children's broadcasting, but again, although I think the member was in favour of keeping the quota on ITV, ITV has been relieved of some of its obligations, its hours in regard to children's television; so it is difficult to see what the board has been doing and how much notice the main board actually takes of its recommendations.

  Q2093  Chairman: In principle, without putting words in your mouth, the idea of strengthening the board would seem to flow very naturally from what you have been saying.

  Ms Hay: Very much so, yes. We would like to see that. We have pinned a lot of hope on the Content Board. The Content Board was not in the original White Paper. It was put in at the last minute, and I believe I am right in saying that the Chairman of Ofcom actually spoke against it, when it was discussed at Bill stage in the House of Lords, and I think the chief executive also on another occasion at a different conference during the preliminary period also spoke against it,, before Ofcom was legally operational. So it has been pushed into the structure of Ofcom and in some ways it does not seem to have such an obvious, clear, transparent or effective role as the consumer panel. So, yes, it would be good to see it strengthened because we believe it is very necessary. Ofcom is operating very much as an economic regulator and we had pinned a great many hopes on the Content Board being able to influence content.

  Chairman: I am immensely grateful. You have been very patient and I think you have made some very strong points in the evidence. Thank you very much. If we have got any other points following up perhaps we could be in touch with you, but we are slightly running out of time at this point. Thank you very much, and thank you, Mr Clarke, for coming as well. We are very grateful.



 
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