Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2140 - 2154)


Lord Puttnam

  Q2140  Chairman: 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.

  Q2141  Chairman: 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.

  Q2142  Chairman: 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 as satisfactory?

  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.

  Q2143  Chairman: 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 sources.

  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 onwards?

  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.

  Q2150  Chairman: 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.

  Q2151  Chairman: This would be an analogue benefit fund as opposed to slicing the licence fee?

  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 difficulties—I see difficulties in top slicing the BBC income—there 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.

  Q2153  Chairman: 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.

  Q2154  Chairman: 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.

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