Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2160 - 2179)


Mr Richard Hooper CBE

  Q2160  Chairman: Of course you are dealing only with broadcasting.

  Mr Hooper: The Content Board at Ofcom dealt only with broadcasting. It is an interesting point because there are other citizenship issues within Ofcom's remit, for example the Universal Service Obligation in telecommunications. That was not a Content Board matter, that was handled elsewhere. The Content Board was very much a broadcasting committee—a sub-committee of the main board—with concerns for Tier 1, as I have mentioned. Media literacy, which is an extremely important citizenship issue, and of course Tiers 2 and 3—Tier 2 being quotas and Tier 3 being public service broadcasting—the point being that on Tiers 2 and 3 the Content Board advise the main board, it was not the final decision maker because there is an economic interest at the heart of those issues as well.

  Q2161  Chairman: We will get onto mergers at some stage but just to clarify the position, you would have no status when it came to a merger between two newspapers.

  Mr Hooper: During my time at Ofcom we never had that investigation so I did not have that delightful experience. It would not have gone through the Content Board.

  Q2162  Chairman: Would Ofcom really have any status for newspapers?

  Mr Hooper: Yes, of course it would. There was a possibility of a public interest test, yes, they could be asked for a comment.

  Q2163  Chairman: Who would ask them?

  Mr Hooper: I think I am right in saying the secretary of state but I may be wrong.

  Q2164  Chairman: Do you think that Parliament gave you or Ofcom enough guidance on how to interpret citizenship duties in the legislation it passed?

  Mr Hooper: I think the answer is yes, but it is a very difficult word. I have in front of me Lord Goldsmith's review of citizenship which has some very interesting passages relevant to our debate. I think citizenship is a very tough number; I think it is difficult. I think people do mean different things about it whereas I think, thanks to Adam Smith and the development of the economic academic discipline, we know quite a lot about consumers. There is no academic discipline sitting behind citizenship. It is complicated, it is blurred; I think there was enough judgment and independent regulators could probably do with broad principles rather than terribly minute rules from the statute book.

  Q2165  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: We all know the background of the Broadcasting Act; it was very definitely an economic and a technical regulator in its initial concept and then other things were added on. Would it, in your view, have been helpful, given the add-on aspect of the Content Board and so on, if Parliament had explicitly stated whether Ofcom should prioritise the needs of citizens or the needs of consumers?

  Mr Hooper: To be honest, being there as founding Deputy Chairman and the founding Chairman of the Content Board, it did not feel like an add-on. It did not feel like a sort of late addition due to the activities of some members of the House of Lords. I do understand the history of it. The Content Board and the citizenship duties were very much taken to the heart of the main board chaired by Lord Currie with Stephen Carter and Ed Richards. It was not an add-on. If the statute had prioritised citizenship I think it would have lost the essential quality of the regulator which was, as in so many things in life, a balance. It is actually a balance between the interests of the consumer and the citizen but sitting behind that balance is the health of the industry because if the industry is not healthy then clearly consumers and citizens are not going to get benefits.

  Q2166  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Could you remind me whether the Content Board, apart from having you as Chairman, had additional co-opted people sitting on it?

  Mr Hooper: There was a second member of the main board on the Content Board so actually there were two members on the Content Board that also served on the main board. My deputy was Sarah Nathan, the first ever woman editor of a major national news programme, Channel 4 News, so very strong in the area of news media, and she and I both sat on the main board. In addition to that we had members, including members for Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, which again was quite a contentious issue if you remember the passage of the Act because there was a view that those should be at the main board level and not at the Content Board level. There were those members so we had a number of members around the Content Board including, for example, Floella Benjamin (obviously a very experienced broadcaster); we had Jonathan Edwards who was the member for England. It was a well-balanced and I would argue it was a citizen body because by and large the Content Board was not asked to make economic decisions. What happened was that those decisions in the end were taken by the main board, taking into consideration the citizenship issues and the consumer issues, brought together at the main board.

  Q2167  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I wonder if I could just push you then a little bit more on that issue at the level of the Content Board. Can you think of any examples where those two conflicting or complementary issues—whichever way you like to look at them—were debated and where there were definitely two sides to the argument?

  Mr Hooper: I can think of two examples, one will be very close to people's hearts here, and that was ITV rowing back from its regional programming and regional production obligations, which historically had been the heartland of ITV and for which there was huge political and viewer support. I think the citizen argument for not rowing back was very strong. The economic argument was the health of ITV in the beginnings of a market where there was movement of advertising out of television into the internet; in one sense the beginnings of a declining industry. The main board—and I as a member of the main board—had to put those two together and we actually allowed them to row back a bit but not as much as they wanted and I think we got some political stick for that, quite rightly because from a citizenship point of view that was legitimate. We had that business of balancing the two.

  Q2168  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Are you saying that at the Content Board level possibly the balance is slightly the other way?

  Mr Hooper: Yes, I think the Content Board views, which I expressed to the main board and indeed my head of content who is sitting behind me, Tim Suter (who played an absolutely magnificent role during my time at Ofcom) was a major player on the Content Board. The answer is that the Content Board had strong views on that and the member for Scotland and the member for Northern Ireland and the member for England and the member for Wales had very strong views on it, not surprisingly, and those were communicated.

  Q2169  Lord Maxton: Was the Content Board pro-active or re-active? In other words, did you actually monitor, did you have people who were watching television and listening to radio on a regular basis and then giving you reports on what they thought? Or did you react to people making complaints about a particular item?

  Mr Hooper: This is a terribly important question. We are very clear that the Content Board was effectively complaints driven. The reason for that is that the notion of having 500 hundred television channels and I cannot remember how many radio stations being monitored was just not practical. Therefore it was not a monitoring of television. Of course in the early days of the IBA it was indeed the case, in the early days of regulation after the monopoly of the BBC was lost in the mid-50s. There was a model then but then there were only two, three or four channels. It was complaints driven and there are two points to make about that. I made this very, very clear as the chairman of the Content Board, that one complaint was as valid to us as 10,000 complaints. You might say that that is a bit bizarre, but in our experience the numbers were not necessarily an example of the importance of the complaint. Because of the impact of the print news media, the impact of celebrity issues, all of that drives complaints. You occasionally got complaints that were clearly copied and was more of a lobby group than a serious complaint. We never took the view that 10,000 were more important than one. Having said that, 10,000 is quite important and in the case of Jerry Springer it was the largest, most complained about programme in the history of British broadcasting and clearly we took that seriously. Coming back to your question, we also ourselves, as citizens sitting on that Content Board, watched a lot of television; we listen to a lot of radio. One of my requirements when we recruited members of the Content Board is, "Do you watch television? Do you listen to radio?" I can remember one person who did not get very far when they said, "Well, I don't but my children do". I said, "That is not really what we are after". We did watch a lot and I very much encouraged members of the Content Board and indeed members of the main and colleagues and staff that if they saw something that they were unhappy about it was perfectly legitimate for a complaint to begin inside the system.

  Q2170  Lord Maxton: Being complaints driven is always open to abuse—maybe that is the wrong word—to minority opinion being more important than the views of the wider public.

  Mr Hooper: Yes, and I hope and believe that one of the great successes of Ofcom has been the handling of Tier 1. Lady Howe will remember that when Ofcom was formed there were a number of people in the House of Lords who said that Ofcom will be drowned by these issues: taste and decency, accuracy et cetera and all the economic regulation will be drowned out. That did not happen because the Content Board got on and did Tier 1 without talking to the main board; this was a delegated responsibility. I think it allowed it to do things like Jerry Springer and less highly visible matters in a quiet and professional way with a very good team working to the Content Board and who were capable of differentiating between the different types of complaint.

  Q2171  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: I think Mr Hooper has answered my question and I assume from what you are saying that you believe, unlike some of the witnesses we have heard, that what is stated in the Communications Act that the Ofcom Content Board should have at least significant influence on decisions, you believe it does and it is working.

  Mr Hooper: It had delegated powers over Tier 1, as I have mentioned, which is without question the most important function it carries out. Of those matters which have an economic dimension it has two voices on the main board and that is extremely important. It very much drove media literacy and the main board would then agree budgets and things like that. I think the structure is good; it is a sub-committee of the main board. By making the deputy chairman the chairman of the Content Board—

  Q2172  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Is the deputy chairman always the chairman?

  Mr Hooper: He certainly is today and I was. I think it is in the Act actually. I think that was a very good piece of drafting. My responsibilities outside the Content Board were absolutely across telecoms, so I was not just a broadcasting person, I was deputy chairman of Ofcom. I think that was an ingenious bit of drafting because it meant that the deputy chairman, who has some weight one hopes in organisations, was there on the main board. Having said that, getting that balance right is very difficult.

  Q2173  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Are you suggesting maybe that you think the influence could be a little stronger?

  Mr Hooper: In my time I do not think that was the case. I do not want to comment on it but I do not think it is an issue.

  Q2174  Chairman: Just before you leave the point, you said in answer to Lady Howe that you had two examples where the interests of the citizen and consumer were different. We had regional programmes but we never allowed you to get to the second example.

  Mr Hooper: The second example is a very interesting one and I think very close to the hearts of members, and that is about the future of radio. How local should radio be in the commercial environment? There was, as a result of pressures upon commercial radio in my time, a desire to row back from local production, local content and so on. I think the Content Board believed that that was not in the interests of citizens. Today, wearing my hat as an individual, I am not sure that it is in the commercial interests. There are two models of commercial radio. There is one which is the national model where basically you go after national advertising—big hitting national advertising—you remove quite a lot of local content and you have big national content, big national music and so on, and the local side of it is much reduced. The disadvantage of that model is that in a recession national advertising falls off the edge of the cliff far quicker than local advertising. Local advertising is more expensive to service but in terms of its resilience in the community it can be very resilient. You have the national model and I think there is also a local model where there is more investment in local content, where there is more dependence upon local advertising. That is probably today not seen as the model by commercial radio; they tend to still be in the national one. However, I would certainly argue that that one should be considered. Coming back to your question, I think we were concerned that both in America where there was a lot of evidence of this and in the UK, the reduction of local content was not in the citizens' interests as a radio listener.

  Q2175  Chairman: Obviously we have taken evidence from commercial radio. I think I am right in remembering that the total revenue of all the stations is only £600 million.

  Mr Hooper: Yes.

  Q2176  Chairman: So the economic interest comes quite high.

  Mr Hooper: It comes very high and that is why, in fact, at main board level we were suitably willing to look at that issue and reduce some of the local obligations.

  Q2177  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: I am a little confused by your comment that all the activity of the Content Board is complaint related.

  Mr Hooper: No, that was just Tier 1.

  Q2178  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: Is part of your remit to analyse and then champion issues? How can you champion issues if you only respond to complaints around accuracy, impartiality, harm and offence?

  Mr Hooper: In terms of that area Ofcom did research that was relevant. The code of practice which we developed and which was in a sense the document that broadcasters and ourselves used to regulate those difficult issues, that was the subject of quite a lot of policy and research work. As you move up into Tiers 2 and 3 that is not complaints driven. If we take Tier 3, public service broadcasting, the Content Board in my time was heavily involved in the public service broadcasting review which was the first major output of public service broadcasting and that was a big policy and evidence based review in which the Content Board played a central role in that.

  Q2179  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: The Tier 1 issues are the ones of greatest concern to the citizen. Ofcom always gave the impression of never having an independent mind on those issues, it had not formed a view before a complaint.

  Mr Hooper: I think we had a clear view because the statute actually tells us what are the key principles. Let us take political impartiality, there was no question that Ofcom held the view that impartiality in the broadcast media was a key value that we were there to police. In that sense we had a very strong view. That was very statute driven because if the legislature had decided that the world had moved on and the broadcast media no longer needed to be impartial, then we would have regulated against whatever that combination was. There were strong values there and strong policy positions, but in the end it was complaints driven.

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