Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom


  1.  The CPBF was established in 1979. It is the leading independent membership organisation dealing with questions of freedom, diversity and accountability in the UK media. It is membership based, drawing its support from individuals, trade unions and community based organisations. It has consistently developed policies designed to encourage a more pluralistic media in the UK and has regularly intervened in the public and political debate over the future of broadcasting in the United Kingdom in the last quarter of a century. It has recently published a pamphlet on the Charter renewal debate, organised a major conference on the topic in London in March 2005 and has established a web-site "Charternet"[5] to encourage debate over the future of the BBC and public service broadcasting. [6]

  2.  The CPBF welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC Charter renewal. The evidence is structured around the questions circulated by the Committee. Page references to the Green Paper[7] are given thus, [6].


  3.  The main purpose of public service broadcasting is to "inform, educate and entertain". We therefore welcome the Green Paper's statement that this rubric will remain "the BBC's mission statement". [6] The interpretation of this role should be flexible. Although the BBC should engage in the other activities listed on page 6 of the Green Paper, if these are enshrined as the only purposes of public service broadcasting in the UK then it could be very restrictive. For example, the BBC should not be seen as simply "representing" the UK; it should be engaged in reflecting the diversity of the UK and actively promoting public involvement in broadcasting. Also, although the Green Paper asserts that the BBC will be involved in entertainment, this is not listed amongst the five aims itemised in the Green Paper. Entertainment is as essential to the purposes of public service broadcasting as are informing and educating people.

  4.  But the BBC is only one part of the public service broadcasting system in the UK. These include ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and S4C. The regulatory structure of broadcasting in the United Kingdom should be structured so as to ensure that all of these broadcasters engage in the core activities of producing high quality programming in the public interest across their schedules. The National Union of Journalists has produced an analysis of the recommendations produced by Ofcom in its Phase 2 document. [8]This points out that under the current policy framework significant parts of the public service system are being allowed to disappear by Ofcom. For example, Ofcom is currently allowing a drastic retreat from the production of non-news programmes in the nations and regions of the UK. Thus the BBC is left as the main bearer of a major responsibility in the area of regional and national production at a time when the BBC is undergoing massive internal job cuts. The BBC cannot be the only body responsible for public service broadcasting and, as we have argued elsewhere, the public service commitments of the commercial public service broadcasters should be reaffirmed and expanded in the next period. [9]

  5.  The Campaign believes that the BBC can play a big role in digital roll-out as its successful engagement with Freeview has proven. Two conditions should apply to this. Firstly the BBC should be aided in this by a separate government grant, not linked to the licence fee. Secondly, the roll out should be part funded by a special levy on existing major digital companies such as ITV and Sky—all of whom will benefit from this process. To make the BBC pay for roll out from the licence fee income would be an unfair burden on the Corporation and promote further attacks on the principle of the Licence fee.


  6.  The Campaign would prefer to see the BBC established by statute rather than a Charter. This would make it possible to have more regular Parliamentary scrutiny of the BBC's structure and practices. The present post 2006 settlement should run for 10 years, and should not be subject to a five year review as suggested by Ofcom. Ofcom's suggestion will inject instability into the system and waste valuable resources which could be used for programming.


  7.  The Campaign is convinced that the BBC should be more democratically run, as should all bodies responsible for broadcasting. Broadcasting matters could be devolved to national and regional communication councils. These might include representatives of the national parliaments and assemblies in the UK and people appointed by nominating bodies. The nominating bodies should be organisations that represent people in their workplace and local communities, and they could select people for the communication councils through a process of internal election. They in turn would nominate candidates for election to the BBC Board of Governors and the Board of Governors of Ofcom. For these reasons we would like to see the issue of the BBC's governors viewed in the context of the governance of all broadcasting organisations, and any changes to make it more democratic must apply to Ofcom and the Channel 4 and S4C board.

  8.  Separating the governance of the BBC from its day to day management is a positive move. The "Trust" should have the role of ensuring that the BBC is using its money in accordance with its role as public service broadcaster. There should not, however, be "service licences". This is a model more suited to discrete commercial operations, not organisations where developing interlocking relationships evolve rapidly in the light of technological changes and shifts in public taste and interests. The "Trust" should have the role of viewing the functions of the BBC in the round.

  9.  The "Trust" should "make sure that the BBC . . . is editorially independent of Government and commercial interests" [11] but in addition it should have the role of defending the BBC's independence, which is a more proactive role than is stated in the Green Paper.

  10.  The idea of a "public value" [11] test suits the current climate of seeking to prevent the BBC from making programmes that might be profitably made by commercial operators. Similarly the idea that the "Trust" should somehow be involved in protecting the commercial sector from the BBC so that the Corporation "doesn't unfairly or unduly damage commercial media businesses" [11] is odd. There are competition laws in place. The BBC should not act in any way inconsistent with those laws, but equally should not be required to do more than the law expects. These ideas should be dispensed with. The Annual report of the "Trust" to Parliament should be of sufficient detail to allow a critical scrutiny of the Corporation's activities. It should be remembered that the BBC is not a commercial organisation and should be allowed to develop its profile organically without the artificial, and politically motivated, constraint of a public value test.

  11.  Ofcom should have only the most minimal of roles in relation to the BBC. Where the BBC engages in commercial activity, ie generating revenue in the market place, Ofcom has a role. Where BBC activity simply engages, for non commercial reasons, in an arena where others enter knowing that the BBC is an important organisation operating in the public interest, Ofcom should have no role. So, we would argue that there should be review of the current levels of Ofcom regulation of the BBC to cut back the extent to which that essentially commercially orientated regulator can interfere with the BBC's activities, and that includes Ofcom's role as the final arbiter of complaints [12].

  12.  Equally the references to the "Trust" operating a "rigorous system of performance measurement" [11] and maintaining a "contract" with the licence fee players reads like fashionable rhetoric. The really important thing is that the BBC is held accountable, through democratic mechanisms, to the public. A contract is a commercial device, superbly relevant to a commercial transaction. The BBC is not engaged in a commercial transaction with licence fee payers.


  13.  The idea that Ofcom should be involved in regulating the BBC's internal activities to determine their competition implications is misplaced for two reasons.

    (a)  Reason one, because Ofcom is a completely different kind of body to the BBC, with a remit to promote commercial broadcasting and an ethos that has reflected this very clearly in recent months. Ofcom's decision to allow ITV to retreat from its public service obligations on national and regional non-news programming is a fine example of its ethos. [10]Indeed it is possible to argue that like its predecessor, the Independent Television Authority in the period between 1954 and 1962, Ofcom has become a promoter, rather than a regulator of the sector. It was this which led the Committee on Broadcasting (1962) to recommend major surgery of the ITA and a rethink of its relationship to the sector. [11]The argument should be about overhauling Ofcom rather than giving it more powers over the BBC.

    (b)  Reason two is because, according to Ofcom's research, there is no problem that needs solving. In paragraph 4.22 of its Phase 2 document Ofcom stated that "we do not have sufficient evidence to prove or to disprove the existence of overall crowding-out efficiency losses from the public funding of the BBC in aggregate". In other words, the idea that BBC is crowding out commercial competition is unproven. You would not believe this if you read the press or Ofcom's publications. For, in spite of the evidence, Ofcom concludes that the BBC does pose a problem in this area. [12]If the BBC acts in an uncompetitive manner, then it should be judged according to the law, post-facto. It is not common practice to subject the supermarket, car or pharmaceutical industries to internal scrutiny by outside bodies before they have taken commercial decisions. Why then should such unfair practice be applied to the BBC? The Campaign is not advocating that the BBC should remain immune from the consequences of its actions where they are shown to be in breach of the law. But we are against establishing a special regime of scrutiny, where there is no evidence to justify such a regime of which we, and it would appear Ofcom, are aware.


  14.  The Licence fee should be fixed at a level which accounts for broadcasting inflation and which allows money for further expansion of BBC services in the next 10 years. The BBC should not be subjected to subscription at any point for, as Ofcom has argued, because public service broadcasting should be "widely available" subscription "would not deliver this objective. Poorer people would save paying the licence fee but would probably have to pay more than now if they wanted access to BBC programming".[13] Subscription is not an option if we want a UK wide public service system which is universally available and has at its heart the sets of public goals outlined here and in the Green Paper. The BBC's funding should be reviewed at the end of the next 10 year Charter period. If by then a system as fair and efficient as the licence fee has emerged, it should be given serious consideration.

  15.  The plurality of public service broadcasting in the digital age can be safeguarded in the following ways.

    (a)  Funding an accountable BBC to engage with all the new and emerging platforms to ensure it is free at the point of use and universally available.

    (b)  Using a range of incentives and regulations to make ITV remain a full range provider of public service broadcasting as well as making similar provisions for Channels 4 and 5 and S4C. In addition obliging major subscription and pay-per-view providers, like Sky, to make more quality programmes.

    (c)  Providing incentives to existing and new entrants to increase the range, diversity and quality of programming on offer. Ofcom, in its Phase 2 document has mentioned some of these, in particular in its discussions about ITV's position and its discussion of a Public Service Publisher. We have argued that the Public Service Publisher proposal is not, in the current context, a positive proposal. [14]Yet we welcome the imaginative way in which Ofcom has begun to think around the issue of creating policy tools to promote public service broadcasting across platforms.


  16.  The CPBF has always promoted independence and diversity in mass communications. It recognises that some independents have produced excellent work and will do more.

  17.  We think, however that public service broadcasters should retain a major pool or resources, technical and artistic, to sustain it into the future. Moving towards a policy of out sourcing 40 per cent of BBC production is a recipe for weakening that pool and replacing it by an underpaid, poorly trained and overworked workforce. [15]We would argue that there should be no increase in the current quota.

  18.  Secondly, we think that the independent sector has escaped public scrutiny for too long. It is simply assumed in public policy discourse that the independents are both independent and desirable forms of organisation. We think there should be an independent enquiry into conditions of work, equal opportunities, training and commissioning practices in the independent sector. Once we are all a lot clearer about how this sector operates and how its practices impact on the pool of talent and resources we need to sustain vibrant creative industry in the UK, it might then be possible to revisit the issue of BBC quotas. But, as with Ofcom's touching faith in the idea that the BBC is guilty, without being proven so, of crowding out, so BBC management and the government have an equally moving and unfounded faith in the independent sector.


  19.  Deciding what kind of BBC and public service system is wanted is a question of value. It will be influenced by economic considerations, but not dictated by them. So the future of the BBC will, like it or not, be decided, by politics. This is right and proper.

  20.  Yet on key issues, crowding out, subscription, outside regulation of the BBC, and independents, there is little evidence to sustain the orthodoxies which appear in the Ofcom document and the Green Paper. We would urge the House of Lords Committee to bear this very, very, important point in mind when it deliberates on the issues.

April 2005

5 Back

6   See, T.O'Malley, Keeping the BBC Public. The BBC and the 2006 Charter Review (London, CPBF), March 2005) and CPBF, Media Manifesto 2005, (London, CPBF, 2005). Back

7   DCMS. Review of the BBC's Royal Charter. As strong BBC, independent of government, (London, DCMS, 2005). Back

8   NUJ, "The response of the National Union of Journalists to: `Phase 2-Meeting the digital age Ofcom review of public service television broadcasting. (London, Ofcom, 2004) '" (London, NUJ, 2004). Back

9   See, T.O'Malley, Keeping the BBC Public. The BBC and the 2006 Charter Review (London, CPBF). Back

10   See, NUJ, "The response of the National Union of Journalists to: `Phase 2-Meeting the digital age Ofcom review of public service television broadcasting. (London, Ofcom, 2004) '" (London, NUJ, 2004). Back

11   See, HMSO, Committee on Broadcasting 1960 (London, 1963, cmnd 1753). Back

12   Ofcom, Phase 2.-Meeting the Digital Challenge: Ofcom review of public service broadcasting (London, Ofcom, 2004) paras 4.22, 6.24. Back

13   ibid. para 5.56. Back

14   See, T.O'Malley, Keeping the BBC Public. The BBC and the 2006 Charter Review (London, CPBF). Back

15   M. Darlow, "Behind the goatees", The Guardian 3 September 2004. Back

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