Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2120
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008
Q2120 Baroness Eccles of Moulton:
You would support the appeal process per se?
Lord Puttnam: Yes. I would like it to be quicker,
cleaner and more decisive.
Q2121 Baroness Eccles of Moulton:
It would not in any way undermine the authority of either of the
Lord Puttnam: It should not. We are going through
a process which English law requires we go through.
Do we need two regulators on this or is there a case for just
Lord Puttnam: For the time being, we are stuck
with what we have. I think Andrew Lansley's original formulation
was an expedient one. If you asked Andrew, "Would this be
the ideal?" he would say, "No." What he did was
spot an opportunity with the two parallel pieces of legislation
to create a lock that would end up with a more desirable outcome
than we were likely to get by purely attempting to amend the Communications
Q2123 Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
I wanted to explore whether you were concerned that the two organisations
involved had come to quite different conclusions about plurality.
Lord Puttnam: I have probably almost overstated
the case but I am absolutely convinced that the worst thing that
could happen to British television is to leave the BBC as the
last man standing in the public space. That would be a disaster.
You really will have created an Aunt Sally and the whole tone
of the next round of licence fee negotiation would be quite different
because it would be: "Do we want the BBC or do we not want
the BBC?" I do not think that is a debate we want to get
into. The argument for a variety of public broadcasting is obvious.
It knocks over into the area of news provision. We want in my
judgment at least three providers of news. The statistics in my
document make it pretty clear that people still innately trust
television news. Television news has done a remarkable job of
maintaining trust and they will want a choice. One of the nicest
things about being at Channel 4 is how complimented we are on
Channel 4 News. It comes on at seven; it lasts an hour; it tends
to spend longer on individual subjects and it is very satisfying
to a particular group of people. Anything we do that diminishes
the quality and voice in news damages us as a society. Although
I have been on lots of platforms and heard lots of arguments,
I have never really heard anyone remotely convincingly argue the
Q2124 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
You seem to be saying in your paper that the BSkyB issue was dealt
with exactly as the regulatory regime that was set up in the 2003
Act was intended to work and that there was an issue of competition
but not of plurality. That was what was found. You do seem to
be implying in what you have just said now that you think perhaps
there was an issue of plurality there to be discussed. Certainly
Ed Richards when he gave evidence to us did think there was an
issue of plurality and he was quite surprised that that had not
been picked up on. Are you saying for instance that the way that
it worked in the end meant that the plurality issues that maybe
were not explicitly allowed nonetheless were dealt with by virtue
of the way competition issues were dealt with? Given that it is
going to be appealed anyway, it is quite a complex environment
Lord Puttnam: I agree with Ed. I do not think
the Competition Commission sufficiently looked at the dangers.
I do not think the Competition Commission fully understood the
long term dangers of the plurality of television news and where
that could go. At the moment, the Act allows Channel 4 to be in
being. It does not allow us to be the provider of news. The timing
was perfectly sensible because it was a way of propping up ITV,
trying to make sure that ITV was a good, solid competitor for
the BBC. The problem is that, should ITV become marginalised or
get itself into financial trouble, the Act as presently written
would mean that Channel 4 would have the choice of either going
on to Sky or going to the BBC for BBC news. We would not be able
to provide our own. Those who, like me, love Channel 4 News would
notice the difference very quickly. I think that was not understood
by the Competition Commission. Maybe the case was never adequately
Q2125 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
You think there is a plurality issue in that specific potential
for BSkyB to be influential in ITV?
Lord Puttnam: The problem is you then get into
the slightly circular argument that Sky, quite reasonably, would
say, "We produce an excellent, multi award winning news service.
What would be so bad about us putting it out at seven o'clock?"
Q2126 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
The issue is nonetheless an issue of plurality and not just of
Lord Puttnam: Absolutely.
Q2127 Lord Grocott:
One of the things that is very reassuring about this paper to
somebody who, like me, does not like things changing too quickly
is that still, after all the proliferation, the British public
look to the national television channels predominantly (a) to
look for their news and (b) they regard it as being more reliable
than the various other mechanisms that have become available.
Do you agree with me that things are not changing quite as dramatically
as some of the technocrats might have thought? The focus for people
who want a plurality of news available and quality news probably
has to focus predominantly on national broadcast channels, on
television channels et al, and we need not be quite so worried
about all these other areas? I would like to know whether you
think that is changing so quickly that probably that is an out
of date area and it is not worth focusing on. Secondly, in an
area with such a diverse range of management structures ranging
from the very regulated, by and large, broadcast area to the totally
deregulated other end of the scale, is it conceivable that you
could ever have any kind of mechanism that would ensure quality
and plurality right across the area?
Lord Puttnam: There are three questions there.
First, I find it surprising, remarkable and reassuring that television
news has retained the degree of trust it has for as long as it
has. To pretend that other change is not taking place at an amazing
pace is silly. It is taking place. The interesting challenge is
to the new technologies. How quickly will they become interested
in or jealous of that form of trust? How quickly will they want
to build trust into their offering because they want to monetise
what they have? I will give you an example. At the moment with
Wickipedia, unless you wait 21 days, you cannot rely on anything
it publishes. They realise this and I think they are beginning
to date their entries so that you can be sure. After 21 days you
can guarantee that it has been checked by two editors and it is
likely to be fairly accurate. I see a series of mechanisms developed
by online use which slowly establishes a certain amount of credibility
and gravity and responsibility. That will happen. It has not been
an issue for them at the moment because growth has been the way
it is. It is fun and those things tend to have a cost attached
to them. The New York Times said the other day that some
10% of its total cost is in fact checking. If you tried to apply
that to most of the newspapers in the UK they would throw their
hands up in absolute horror. The non-traditional base is dominant
because it has developed trust. It would be complacent to assume
over the next five years even that the new, incoming media will
not realise that trust is a very important and fundamental component
and will not put in mechanisms to develop that trust. You are
right in one sense but five years from now the situation probably
Q2128 Bishop of Manchester:
Can we go back to the issue of citizenship? Earlier on in response
to Baroness McIntosh, you were indicating the desirability of
regulators in the decision making that they do in terms of the
public interest being seen to be taking citizenship interests
seriously. I wonder if you could help us in defining what we mean
by citizenship interests, particularly in relation to news media
which is obviously one of the things that is of particular interest
to this Committee?
Lord Puttnam: To me, citizenship interests are
where people are given an opportunity to reflect and understand
the way the issues they are confronting affect their lives. The
moment you understand that you are effectively acting like a citizen.
Citizenship interest is not for example The Sun headline
that says, "99% of you wish to bring back hanging."
I regard that as a very good example of what is not citizenship
interest. You could have a headline with Ruth what's her name
and Bentley. 99% of people think hanging is a good idea but these
two people clearly should not have been hung. It is ridiculous.
To be a citizen requires plurality of input, thought, the ability
to try to imagine issues and situations influencing and affecting
your life. It is tough. One of the reasons I am absolutely passionate
about citizenship in schools is that unless you develop a generation
of people to whom this is food and drink we will always be at
the mercy of yesterday's headline in The Daily Mail or
tomorrow's headline in The Sun. What we need is a generation
who says, "That is arrogant nonsense because it does not
accord with what I believe is the society I want to live in."
Q2129 Bishop of Manchester:
In practical terms, what about the enforceability of this? You
referred earlier to the way in which we just managed to get citizenship
mentioned in the Communications Act. In terms of the role of Ofcom,
which is again part of the Communications Act, what would you
feel in this area of citizenship Ofcom's record is up to now and
are there any particular ways in which you feel it could improve
the way in which it deals with issues to do with citizenship?
Lord Puttnam: It did not want it. David Curry
and Stephen Carter were very honest. We got into that very odd
formulation of citizen/consumer. That was about the worst possible
formulation. Things are improving. Two successive chairs of the
Content Committee have been successful. The quality of debate
at Ofcom has improved. Just recently at least two of the new members
of the Ofcom board held citizenship issues very dearly. I am extremely
hopeful. The interesting thing about politics, I suppose, is the
more we become aware of crises and the complexity of the world
ahead of us the better shot things like citizenship have. In the
last ten years I have watched the citizenship debate change quite
a lot. I did a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts in early December
showing how education, climate change and the communications world
were interdependent and interlocked. The very first question was
a killer. A chap said, "We understand what you are saying
but I am also hearing that you are suggesting to us that climate
change in a way is a good thing because it is going to make us
reflect on the type of human beings we will have to deal with.
Do you approve of that?" He had me absolutely bang to rights.
As we become more thoughtful about the challenges of the 21st
century, these issues begin to bubble up and take on a new resonance.
Elspeth has been fantastic on this subject for all the years I
have known her. In a sense, you were a very early echo of these
issues in all the work you did. Do you not feel that there is
a better echo coming back now?
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: A much better echo.
Q2130 Bishop of Manchester:
Taking up your reference earlier to the battle that went on in
debate between the consumer and citizenship, do you feel that
we are at a point where it is necessary for Parliament to give
stronger guidance to Ofcom about that balance?
Lord Puttnam: Yes. Many of us have been trying
to do it during the climate change debate. Any number of opportunities
crop up when all of us, in this House particularly, can bang the
citizens' drum. In the last 20 years the citizen has been marginalised
in favour of the economic. Very few of us regard it as a win win
situation. The argument for what it is to be a human being, a
citizen, what this country could offer you as an active, engaged
citizen is beginning to be listened to and I think that is fantastic.
Q2131 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
I want to ask about the role of the Secretary of State again in
this public interest area. We have been given quite a lot of evidence
from people who have sat where you are sitting that Ofcom should
have the power to initiate an investigation on public interest
grounds. Am I right in thinking you would certainly agree with
that not least because of Ofcom's pro-citizen interest? You stated
how important this was in the course of the Bill. Would you agree
Lord Puttnam: I absolutely agree with it. I
sat next to John Hutton at a dinner two weeks ago and my clear
sense was he would like this whole thing a million miles away
from him. He did not think these decisions falling on his desk
had any political or any other form of attractive mileage. You
do very quickly see that media issues in choosing what is or is
not in the interests of Sky or ITV is not a place most politicians
want to be.
Or should be.
Lord Puttnam: Or should be.
Q2133 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
Should the Secretary of State be required to accept the advice
of a regulator, of Ofcom, that there should be a public interest
Lord Puttnam: He should or in the alternative
should have extraordinarily good reasons for making an exception.
That exception itself should be a broad public interest exception.
Q2134 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
If he is going to produce reasons like that, they must presumably
be made very public?
Lord Puttnam: Yes.
Q2135 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
What about the remedy that is suggested in cases like this? Should
that remedy again be open to the Secretary of State to refuse
to accept? This really boils down to what value does the Secretary
of State bring to this whole process, not least if we go back
to the time when we were dealing with the licence fee? The real
concern was that there was too cosy an arrangement between government
and the BBC on that occasion and that Parliament really needed
to play a much greater role in backing any decisions that were
Lord Puttnam: The great thing about politics
is that eventually the books and the memoirs get written. Eventually,
the memoirs will be written of the period surrounding the 2002
Communications Act. I know that amongst some very honest ministers
will be included reference to the fact that they were being daily
lobbied by media interests against the Bill that we eventually
got through. That is a very potent lobbying. That is not a newspaper
proprietor's association shuffling in once a month; this is a
daily phone call from people that, as a minister, you dare not
not take their call. When these memoirs come out, I would like
to think that governments in the future will say, "I do not
want to take those calls. I want a regulatory regime where I can
honestly say it is nothing to do with me. The way the media are
controlled is absolutely transparent according to the law."
They would still be lobbied on the legislation.
Lord Puttnam: On the legislation. It was a very
ugly, unattractive time and a number of us came under a lot of
pressure most of which was avoidable. Individual ministers behaved
in those circumstances magnificently. I mean that absolutely but
they should never have been put through the trauma that they were
Q2137 Baroness Howe of Idlicote:
So no role for the Secretary of State?
Lord Puttnam: No. Separation between the media
and the state should be created.
What were the issues that they were being pressed upon?
Lord Puttnam: Anything that involved new regulation.
They were looking for a deregulated environment. They were at
the time using the examples of the United States and yet Colin
Powell's son, who was running the SEC, was looking across the
Atlantic to what we had wishing he had the formula that we had.
He came across to see us at one point and was fascinated.
Q2139 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
I heard you in the House a couple of nights ago talking about
the relationship between the Climate Change Committee and the
Secretary of State. I understood you to be saying that you did
not support a situation in which the Climate Change Committee
were the final arbiters on the grounds that there was a necessity
for there to be some kind of political endorsement. It is a democratic
issue. That is what was being discussed, was it not? Reading across
from that to what you have just said to Lady Howe, can you explain
in what way the democratic requirement that there be an overview
of these issues, that relates back to the electorate and does
not reside solely with the group of people who have been appointed,
is met by what you have just said?
Lord Puttnam: Dale Campbell-Savours was taking
the position that all these issues were best kept outside of government
and placed as much as possible directly in the hands of the Climate
Change Committee. That was not being accepted by the government.
What I was trying to do with Jeff Rooker was to say, that being
the case, let us be really clear. You are saying that the key
decisions on this Bill must be made in Parliament by Parliament
and the Climate Change Committee must be given a very clear set
of terms of reference. The reason I am pressing this point is
because we have all sorts of bits and pieces of ambiguity. I was
really trying to say to Jeff, "Which is it? One or the other.
Are we devolving these responsibilities to the Climate Change
Committee or are we saying that the decision has to be made here
on the floor of the House?" I could deal with either. What
I could not deal was the now you see it, now you do not approach.