Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 750 - 759)


Mr Jeremy Dear, Professor Julian Petley, Mr Tim Gopsill and Dr Martin Moore

  Q750  Chairman: May I welcome you. You obviously know the nature of our inquiry; you have submitted evidence to us. We are delighted that you are here to give us your views. May I begin with obviously what is, certainly for the NUJ, the burning issue which is the recent reports on the BBC. What do you think of last week's announcement from the BBC on the content and quality of the BBC news operations?

  Mr Dear: You would expect me to say that we will be very concerned about the possibility of compulsory redundancies, additional work and so on for our members at the BBC but I think that above all what has come across is the real concern for the quality of the content they are able to produce with a severely diminished workforce. As you will have noticed, around 2,500 jobs are to go. BBC News is to see around 500 posts closed, and the money going to BBC journalism will fall by more than 10% in real terms over the six-year period that the current proposals cover. If you take a particular example, programmes like Radio 4's Today programme will have their budgets cut and the programme where once it had 17 reporters will now have less than half that number, as if you can say that there is now only half the news there was several years ago. Factual series such as Arena will be scaled back. Storyville will produce less episodes. News 24 will be asked to cut some of its original programmes and a number of specialist reporter posts will also be axed. Importantly also, BBC nations and regions will lose around 8% of its staff including more than 400 in Scotland and Wales, among them the people who produce the tailored news services for people in different nations and regions of the UK, a vitally important part of what the BBC does particularly in the light of ITV scaling back its commitment to local and regional news. We were slightly surprised when the BBC Trust Chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, said that the plans—and I am quoting him—"safeguard investment in areas in which the BBC's reputation as an outstanding public service broadcaster rests". We do not think that that is what is happening and that there is a very real potential impact on the quality of programming. What the BBC has to decide to do, if it has to save £2.2 billion over six years, is not salami-slice everything but decide what it does not do, what it should not do and stop doing it in return for proper investment in the core areas of its public service broadcasting.

  Q751  Chairman: Coming from Scotland, I accept some of that and obviously I accept your concerns. However, it always worries me a little that, when there is a Scottish story that manages to reach the UK news, there is a correspondent sent up from London to cover that news rather than it being somebody from Scotland covering that news where they are already covering it. The Director General himself said that he had 36 different requests for interviews from BBC News outlets. Does that not mean that there is maybe a need to consolidate and to use new services better?

  Mr Dear: I am slightly puzzled by what you said because he actually said that he had 37 calls about requests for interviews. That may well show one tenacious journalist ringing 37 times! Certainly last week during the BBC cuts, I had an awful lot of calls from, for example, The Daily Telegraph, but all from one person. I do understand the point you are making. If the BBC is to justify its privileged position in having the licence fee—and it is a privileged position, one which we very much support—it has to do so by being able to deliver quality programming, but it also has to cut out waste and I think it is right that we look at all areas and that it has to make the 3% efficiency savings and it has to make the £2.2 billion savings. What we are concerned about is that where the cuts fall at the moment, they will impact across the board on the quality of programming rather than simply addressing the areas of waste. You can hardly argue that there is waste on programmes like the Today programme and Newsnight which have significantly fewer staff than they used to have. You may not like the programmes but certainly the case that there is waste there that could be got rid of just does not stand up when all of our members are working 12, 13 or 14 hour days. What you will be asking them to do is work 14, 15 or 16 hour days. In those circumstances, people cut corners in order to get the job done and that is when quality gets compromised.

  Chairman: On the leaked salary of Jeremy Paxman, it may be one way of saving quite a lot of money if they find somebody else but that is another matter.

  Q752  Baroness Thornton: It is very reassuring to know that Jeremy Paxman has you looking after his interests! I would like to move on to preserving public service broadcasting beyond the BBC. In your evidence, you rightly raise the issue that when the digital switchover happens, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, who fulfil public service broadcast requirements in return for free analogue spectrum, will lose that and you said that you thought you had a new system which would require effective regulation and possibly primary legislation and that you would be pleased to elaborate on this to us. So, in a way, what I think I am doing is inviting you to do that, to tell us what you think that system might look like and also I would like to ask for the Media Standards Trust's comment on this too.

  Mr Dear: Tim is going to answer the point in substance but, in terms of an alternative model, we are meeting with James Purnell at 3.00 this afternoon to put in front of him what we believe is an alternative model. We have produced a document on that and we are happy to make that available to members of the Committee subsequent to today's hearing.

  Q753  Baroness Thornton: We are going to get a preview! Thank you.

  Mr Gopsill: We have submitted it to Ofcom in response to the future news consultation that they are doing. We would say that the main concern is to preserve the idea and system that it is possible to regulate television and put public service requirements on television in the digital future because there has been so much commentary to the effect that the digital and online future means that the old rationale for regulation disappears, the old rationale being the spectrum scarcity and the reasonable nature of putting requirements on a licence from the State and there have been so many commercial interests saying, "This is all going to go and television is going to become like newspapers, incapable of being regulated, partisan" and all the rest of it. We simply do not accept that and what we have been working out is a system of maintaining it using two areas. The first one is high definition television and the demand from broadcasters for access to the digital spectrum for that purpose, and we cannot see why that should not be tied to an obligation for public service commitments from the broadcaster concerned. The second one is what are known as the listed events, the 10 listed events, that is the very high-profile sports events which are covered by legislation restricting their broadcast to free-to-air terrestrial broadcasters. Again, the possibility for bidding for those events is a highly desirable property for broadcasters and that too should be tied to companies that have a public service commitment and put obligations on them. Of course, the listed events are themselves public service broadcasting. I think the NUJ is very keen to say that public service broadcasting is not just news and current affairs, which is our own area of direct concern, it is also high-quality programmes in all other areas, drama, comedy and everything else.

  Q754  Chairman: May we move now to the effect of ownership on news which is the basis of our inquiry. You both agree that the content of news is changing. The NUJ seem to attribute many of these changes to consolidation of ownership whereas the Media Standards Trust does not. Is it possible to separate out the effect of consolidated ownership from other forces for change?

  Dr Moore: I think that it is very difficult to separate them out with the exception of News International where I think it is easier to separate them out and easier to have discussion about News International because of slightly different ownership arrangements and historically. I think that generally the demands of the market, particularly in terms of technology and competition, are leading many news organisations and many news owners in a similar direction and that it is not practicable to try and separate those apart and say what the influence of one is as opposed to the influence of the other.

  Professor Petley: I am speaking partly on behalf of the NUJ but I am also Co-Chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom which the NUJ supports and I am also Professor of Film and Television at Brunel University, so I come at this from various angles. Certainly I think that the NUJ would be extremely concerned about consolidation particularly in the newspaper area. The whole point about the broadcasting area is that, as of course you know, it is strongly regulated and therefore the possibilities of owners, whoever they may be, influencing broadcasting content is fairly slight and we have heard evidence from Stewart Purvis to that effect. Of course, in newspapers, it is clear that owners and the editors who they appoint influence content. I think that has always been the case and you only have to read a book for instance like Andrew Neil's Full Disclosure, which is a fascinating book, to see exactly how that influence operates. As my colleague James Curran said, of course it is not Mr Murdoch or any other owner phoning up the journalists every day and saying, "You must do that". Of course it is not. It is much more like a felt presence and I think what happens in newspapers is that when journalists arrive in the mornings, they take their coats off and their jackets off and they hang their values up with them and, for the most part, I think they internalise the values of the newspapers they work for. It would be much more preferable, in my view, if, when they hung up their coats and jackets, they internalised good journalistic values to do with impartiality, balance, disinterestedness et cetera, et cetera rather than internalising the values of the newspapers for which they work. I think that this really does go across the spectrum. I am sure that we have the phenomenon of illiberal journalists, if I may put it that way, working for liberal newspapers and vice versa, but I think that a number of journalists do know that, on certain issues there are limits If you work for The Mail, I would think there is very little point in offering them an article saying how wonderful the European Union is. I do not think there would be much point in doing that.

  Mr Dear: I think that there is another issue. It is not just about the direct influence of an individual proprietor which I think certainly in national newspapers has a big impact but, in the regional press, which remember is huge and is probably read by a greater density of people than read national newspapers, it is the impact of the structures of ownership on the resources available to people to cover news. You use the words "consolidation of ownership". We would use the words "concentration of media ownership" because actually that is what we are seeing: what were original family newspapers or community owned newspapers reflecting community values being increasingly owned by large corporations, for example Gannett, the US corporation, which owns Newsquest, one of the largest UK newspapers publishers, and what we have seen as a result of that structure is a steady erosion of the resources available in editorial areas of those regional newspapers and there are dozens and dozens and dozens of examples. Despite what the Newspaper Society may have said to you as evidence, I would happily challenge those figures. We have concrete examples from things like The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The Evening Times as a result of Newsquest's takeover there, three years worth of cuts. When Trinity Mirror took over the Coventry papers ... I see that you are about to stop me.

  Q755  Chairman: Do you have any figures to illustrate that point? If you do, could we have them.

  Mr Dear: Certainly we can send you further figures on it and the ability for us to be able to say in every single newspaper across the industry exactly what has happened is not possible, but let me give you one statistic here from Newsquest or Gannett, their American owners, which took over The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The Evening Times in 2003 after a rival bid by the Barclay brothers. They announced £3 million pounds of cuts savings resulting in 100 job losses. One hundred job losses may not sound like very much in the grand scale of other industries, but I will say what those were: loss of specialist, environment, Europe, business, and local government; a halving of the Westminster coverage; a halving of the London newsroom; a halving of the news desk; less photographers; the environment correspondent removed; a halving of the business desk; and so on and so forth. These are not insignificant little cuts, these are cuts that affect the ability of that newspaper to cover particular areas, and so there is less regional and parliamentary coverage and more is reliant on Press Association or others delivering copy to all Scottish newspapers that is exactly the same. So, resource issues are very real in terms of the way in which news is able to be covered. We estimate from the figures we have put together 6,000 media job losses in the last three years, of which we estimate that around 2,000 are editorial. Seven-hundred-and-fifty job losses at Trinity Mirror, for example. So, how the Newspaper Society can say that there are more journalists now than there were 10 years ago is not understood by anyone. We have city analysts, academics, journalists and everyone else saying the opposite.

  Dr Moore: With regard to the point about the consolidation of ownership and particularly with regard to the changing nature of these organisations such that certain news organisations are becoming less about news as we have historically considered it and more about a normal commercial organisation, if you take the examples of Trinity Mirror and the Daily Mail Trust, over the last few years, they have been acquiring many other commercial enterprises which previously might have been considered estate agency, might have been considered second-hand car buying, some of which they would have done before within their papers but they have been buying up independent organisations which do that as their primary purpose. Therefore, as they do that, news gathering and news production becomes a smaller part of the business and the commercial aspects of the business increase in size.

  Q756  Lord King of Bridgwater: This is pure ignorance on my part. You say that there are 37,000 journalists in the UK and Ireland; are they all NUJ members?

  Mr Gopsill: Yes we have 37,000 members. I am the editor of the NUJ magazine; it is a closed circulation magazine that goes just to our members.

  Q757  Lord King of Bridgwater: What percentage of journalists are members of the NUJ?

  Mr Dear: It would depend which sector you talk about. In core broadcasting newspapers, you would talk about three-quarters of people being members of the union, but we also cover people in public relations and books where that density would be much lower. Overall, you may talk about half of all the journalists but, in the main sectors of newspapers and broadcasting, it is much higher.

  Q758  Lord King of Bridgwater: You have a very good eye on how many journalists there are in work. If it was a closed shop, you would have the figures absolutely.

  Mr Dear: Are you offering us a closed shop back?

  Q759  Lord King of Bridgwater: That is not quite my philosophy! What I am interested in is how accurate your figures are. What percentage do you think are members?

  Mr Dear: I would say about 50% overall, about 75% in core areas.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008