Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2155 - 2159)


Mr Richard Hooper CBE

  Q2155  Chairman: Mr Hooper, thank you very much indeed for coming. It is beyond the call of duty to come back and give evidence, but we hope that with your experience you might like to be free and look at what you learned in your time there. As you know, what we are doing is the news ownership, the media, the impact that has on the public and the impact that has on the citizen. The Communications Act says that "It shall be the principal duty of Ofcom, in carrying out their functions: (a) to further the interests of citizens in relation to communication matters; and (b) to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition". Can you just remind us how you would distinguish between the interests of the citizens and the interests of the consumers?

  Mr Hooper: Good morning, it is a pleasure to be here. Can I just say that I am here as a private citizen, perhaps an expert witness with 45 years in the media and communications world since I joined the BBC in 1963. I am not here representing Ofcom. I left Ofcom two years ago; I am hugely proud of what Ofcom has done but I am not here representing their views. Also, I am now, for my sins, chairing the independent review of the postal services sector for the Secretary of State, John Hutton, and clearly I am not talking about that area, although it is a communication industry matter and maybe on a later occasion I could come back wearing that hat. One final point before I answer your question, as a matter of principle I have found both in my life in the public sector and private sector that I do not comment on and critique my successors. I find that being a regulator is tough enough without the previous management saying, "Well, of course, I can do it better". What is the difference between a citizen and a consumer? For me during my time at Ofcom there was actually an essential clarity to it which is that if you say that that is a broadcasting market and it is properly competitive and open and inside that space somebody called a "consumer" is operating, they have a contract to buy and sell and so on. My interest in the citizen and I think your interest in the citizen happens as you come to the edges of the market. It is where the market is no longer providing things that we, as a society, feel are valuable. Indeed, I think the core of my definition of public service broadcasting is that it is those things that would not be provided if it was left entirely to a competitive market. I think therefore the citizen issues arise at that blurred boundary condition between the market and public service and public interest. I think that during my life in this wonderful industry I have always spent a lot of time on that intersection between the public sector and the private sector because I think that is where the big issues arise. I hope that makes sense.

  Q2156  Chairman: Can you just tell me how that interrelates with the definition of a public interest?

  Mr Hooper: I think it is exactly where the public interest emerges, that is to say it is in the public interest that we should have high quality news media that are impartial, accurate and interrogative. Will the market by itself produce that? Some of it, but I think the general view of British society—certainly my view—is that probably not enough of it and therefore there is some need for a mechanism to ensure that that happens.

  Q2157  Chairman: So it is an extra above the market.

  Mr Hooper: Yes, I think it is an extra above the market. Having said that—there is a crucial point here—it does not mean that we are talking about ghetto public service broadcasting. It is easy to go from that definition and say that therefore the BBC and Channel 4 should only do stuff beyond the market. That is clearly unrealistic if only because both the BBC and Channel 4 need large audiences; the BBC is paid for by everybody and therefore their need to reach the population is extremely intense, but also if there are more "popular", more commercial programmes within the mix then we know from cross-promotion and other techniques that that audience can be drawn to the more public service output. That is a difficult ratio but it is there.

  Q2158  Chairman: How would you define citizenship duties in relation to the news media?

  Mr Hooper: I think it is about some core values. I think first of all accuracy. As you know, the prime purpose of the Ofcom Content Board is what is called Tier 1, negative content regulation. Taking the torch from one of your members, Lady Howe, who was Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, negative content regulation has to do with what I call the six horsemen of the Apocalypse: harm and offence, accuracy and impartiality, fairness and privacy. Those are the absolutely central values. In broadcasting in this country, as a result of the statute, we expect broadcast media to be impartial. That is not true of printed media. In terms of the citizen, I think if you go through those values, accuracy is a crucial one; impartiality is a crucial one; fairness and privacy are extremely important. Also I think the ability of what I call an independent news to interrogate those in power and opinion formers is necessary; there is sometimes, in our political debate, a certain amount of spin and it is quite useful if you have a news media on behalf of the citizens interrogating to the substance behind the spin. When I joined the BBC in 1963 I remember one of the most iconic moments. I was working on a programme that some of you may remember called Radio Newsreel and we had an editorial meeting. I was just a very green general trainee and I was asked whether I had a news item for the day. I said, "Yes. Three months ago a minister" (I think it was the home secretary) "said something about `in three months' time X will happen'. I think that is quite a good story and we should follow it up." The response from the editor was, "There is no hook to hang it on today". I said, "But he definitely said that three months ago, and it is now three months". He said, "It is not in the newspapers". In those days the news agenda of the BBC was very driven by "if it was in the newspapers". I think that has fundamentally changed and I think today you would not have that conversation.

  Q2159  Chairman: That was a deferential age when your BBC reporters went up and asked the prime minister whether he would like to actually say something to the waiting British public.

  Mr Hooper: I think interrogation is an important part of citizenship values in news media.

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