Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2120 - 2139)

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008

Lord Puttnam

  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 regulators?

  Lord Puttnam: It should not. We are going through a process which English law requires we go through.

  Q2122  Chairman: Do we need two regulators on this or is there a case for just one?

  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 Act.

  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 opposite.

  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 already.

  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 put.

  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 competition?

  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 will change.

  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 with that?

  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.

  Q2132  Chairman: 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 investigation?

  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 made.

  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."

  Q2136  Chairman: 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 put through.

  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.

  Q2138  Chairman: 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.


 
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