Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2140
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008
I cannot remember but the government very surprisingly had a change
in their view on reciprocal arrangements about the United States
Government coming here to take over a state owned company. Did
that come before your Joint Committee?
Lord Puttnam: No. The reciprocity issue was
killed off before it came to our Committee.
The position now is that the government were hoping that reciprocity
arrangements would be in place by now because the United States
would change its view. As far as I know, the United States has
not changed its view.
Lord Puttnam: That is correct.
We are in the rather curious position that a company can come
from the United States and take over ITV without any problem but
a British company going to the United States could not do anything
more than 20% of the United States company. Do you regard that
Lord Puttnam: I do not because, at the time
we were sold the notion of reciprocity not being an area we would
wish to go into, we were being given reasonable assurances that
within five years the United States had every intention of changing
its own laws and that has not happened.
As far as we can tell from the United States, there is no prospect
of it happening either.
Lord Puttnam: There does not seem to be a lot
of interest. Certainly this administration has no interest whatsoever.
Another administration could.
Q2144 Lord Maxton:
When you and Lord Grocott talked about television, you have to
remember that television is within our lifetime. It is not something
that has been going on for hundreds of years. The whole world
is changing. As a democrat, to me, knowledge and information held
by and available to a citizen is at the heart of democracy. Now,
despite what you may say about the convergence of ownership within
this country, people have access to knowledge in a way they have
never had in history before. That is an enormous benefit. A lot
of it is now provided by people who we have no control over like
Google, Yahoo or Microsoft. They are all international companies
that now are the major players in the media world. They do not
provide media as such but they provide access to media. Can we
now regulate in that world, where people choose what media they
want? I have a son who is in public affairs. He never buys a newspaper.
He picks up all his information on the Internet. How do you regulate
in that world?
Lord Puttnam: I get at least 50% of my information
off the Internet. We get back to trusting sources. We are back
to education. If you are silly enough to go on the Internet and
accept advice on any subject from someone you have never heard
of, you are foolish. I do not think it is impossible to teach
very young people the idea of getting a multiplicity of advice.
If I was looking for anything important, I would check three different
Q2145 Lord Maxton:
Why do we not have an education system that puts a computer and
a link to the Internet on every pupil's desk from the age of six
Lord Puttnam: We are trying to move in that
direction as quickly as we can. It is to do with protocols. I
believe that there are genuine protocols to be set up. Wickipedia
now have a tag that effectively warns you that this is a new entry
and in three years' time it will have been tested and checked
and valid. The crucial thing is the old buyer beware. In the provision
of Internet information, "Buyer Beware" should probably
be at the bottom of every computer.
Lord Maxton: And television news. I do not believe
everything I listen to on BBC News because I know some
of it is politically biased.
Q2146 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
In the evidence submitted to us it was stated that there was concern
about the possibility of ITN losing its ITV contract and that
would severely diminish Channel 4's alternatives for news supply.
What was stated was that consideration must be given to how future
legislation might safeguard the editorial independence of Channel
4 news. How could that be achieved?
Lord Puttnam: A stroke of a pen in a piece of
future legislation. It would allow Channel 4 to look quite broadly
at what its news supply options might be. It would allow us to
go to Bloomberg and decide whether we wanted to have a joint venture
with Bloomberg and maintain our present quality. There is a number
of possible suppliers. Under the present legislation we would
have to go to the BBC or Sky.
Q2147 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
Because they are PSB ----?
Lord Puttnam: Yes. They are both licensed. I
do not think it would need more than a single sentence in legislation.
Instead of talking only about programmes, we would talk about
news provision and the ability to draw news provision from another
supplier. The issue here is ownership. Channel 4 is prohibited
from owning its news supply so we would be seeking the opportunity
to own our own news supply.
Q2148 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
In a wider sense, are measures needed to safeguard the channel?
I know there has been discussion of top slicing. What is your
feeling about the possibility of that?
Lord Puttnam: My own personal view is that if
you want Channel 4 operating as an alternative source of public
service broadcasting you will, over the next three, four or five
years, begin to see a gap in energy efficiency. By 2012 there
will be a gap. That gap will be effectively created by our public
service component. It was put beautifully in quite a raucous meeting
I had the other day over the future of Big Brother. I would
prefer it did not leave this room but I think it makes the point
brilliantly. We were looking at versions of Big Brother,
the thoughtful version, the intelligent version. The sales people
were asked what they felt. With some degree of frustration the
director of programming said, "What are you saying? Do you
want me to hire a Thai transvestite and three dwarves?" The
head of sales said, "Exactly." It does sharpen the debate.
There are those at Channel 4 who would not believe themselves
to have any need at all to attempt to come to the public well,
but are you prepared for the Thai transvestite and the seven dwarves
because if it were three the first year it would definitely be
seven the second. That is an ongoing discussion.
Q2149 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
There is concern about Channel 4's independence, its particular
nature and top slicing.
Lord Puttnam: Yes. We have come a long way in
the last 12 months. I would like to see a statute of Shilpa Shetti
erected outside the building because I think she saved us. You
will remember she was the lady on Big Brother who behaved
admirably, a great woman in my book. I think what you are seeing,
particularly with the big launch on 13 April, is something quite
different. Many of you I know have been involved in discussions
surrounding that and your thoughts have affected. We will be a
flat out, public service channel but in two years' time we will
meet the ramifications of being a flat out, public service channel.
You slightly skated round the question that Lady Bonham-Carter
was asking about top slicing. Where do you stand on that?
Lord Puttnam: I know that at least some ministers
have this view. I think the 800 million that has been taken off
to deal with digital switchover will have been spent and about
200 million a year will be available. My dream scenario is somewhere
between 100 and 150 million of that made available to Channel
4 to underpin its public service offering and another 50 million
becoming contestable funding generally available. That would be
a convenient, relatively simple answer.
This would be an analogue benefit fund as opposed to slicing the
Lord Puttnam: To make it less contentious, it
would mean not returning it to the BBC and the licence fee payer,
which are the only two other alternatives.
Q2152 Lord Corbett of Castle Vale:
What you are asking for is a public subsidy to carry out public
service broadcasting responsibilities. There is of course another
way of doing that which was done years ago. Rather than getting
into difficultiesI see difficulties in top slicing the
BBC incomethere are tax breaks. We have been there before
on this. That would achieve the same purpose, would it not?
Lord Puttnam: It would. You are always looking
for certainty because we are working two years ahead. The problem
with tax breaks is that they can be very tricky. It is an option.
I am conscious of about five different options on the table at
the moment. If you are asking me honestly, to return that 200
million to the licence fee payer is pennies. To return it to the
BBC? One of the suggestions is that the BBC should be heroic for
effectively having underpinned the plurality in public broadcasting.
That is the route I would like to see.
You are not very impressed by the Press Complaints Commission?
Lord Puttnam: I am not impressed by the objectivity
of the Press Complaints Commission. In a world in which committees
exactly like this have established a pretty good scrutiny record
in going about their business, I do not think anyone would pretend
that the Press Complaints Commission deals with matters with the
rigour and objectivity that you do.
You are saying they are not scrutinising the press. I was wondering
whether you had any suggestion or proposal on anyone else who
could do it or how it could be changed so that it could be done.
Lord Puttnam: The British Board of Film Censors
which is getting a bit of stick at the moment is not a bad model.
I am old enough to remember when the British Board of Film Censors
was the laughing stock in The Evening Standard every Thursday
night. Through good management and distancing itself from the
industry and consistency, it developed a very good reputation
and a large degree of credibility. Something like that could definitely
operate for the Press Complaints Commission. The problem is it
is essentially an industry scrutinising itself on the assumption
that the least it can find to complain about the better. It does
not feel right. I do not even think the present people who run
it believe it feels right. It does not seem to have any self-belief.
Chairman: We may take that further at some point
but, in the meantime, Lord Puttnam, thank you very much indeed
for a fascinating session. We are very grateful for the enormous
trouble you have taken. Thank you very much indeed.