Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2180 - 2199)


Mr Richard Hooper CBE

  Q2180  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Mr Hooper, I would like to ask you about whether there might be any reforms that could make it possible for the Content Board to perform its functions more effectively, but before getting onto that question could we just return to Jerry Springer for a minute? You said it was the programme that gave rise to the greatest number of complaints. Did Ofcom know about BBC's decision to show that programme?

  Mr Hooper: Yes, we were aware of it but we have no pre-transmission powers. That is a terribly important point. The IBA in the old days had pre-transmission rights; they were the publisher, they were the broadcaster and so they were able to pull programmes and the board would occasionally see programmes. However, we are post-transmission regulators; that is a very important issue.

  Q2181  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: That was something I was interested in. So there is absolutely no influence on what goes out.

  Mr Hooper: That is correct. Mr Suter and I would not encourage broadcasters to say, "Would you have a look at this programme and see if it is any good". No, we would not. What we would do is say, "We are happy to walk you through the code of practice and explain it to you". This comes back to the question about policy, we have very clear views on what we mean by fairness and privacy, what constitutes unfairness. We are not going to do it specific to the programmes. I think that is actually terribly important because one of the advantages of the regulatory system that you put in place with Ofcom was that there was responsibility for the broadcaster and we used to encourage them to say, "In the end, if you decide to run Celebrity Big Brother that is your decision, it is not the regulator's decision". However, we will look at it afterwards and we will make up our views."

  Q2182  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: How does the Content Board then deal with the huge number of complaints that come in?

  Mr Hooper: The answer is a huge workload for a relatively small number of people. Chris Banatvala, who was one of the lead figures, deserves much honour in the land for his sheer tenacity of dealing with very large numbers of complaints and taking them seriously and trying to get at the issues of whether this was a sort of lobby group or whether this was a real complaint; if it was a lobby group it might still be a real complaint, and so on. I think there are experienced staff. In my time one of the members of staff, a key person, went to the BBC Trust and was doing similar work there because, as you will remember, Ofcom does not regulate the BBC on accuracy and impartiality.

  Q2183  Chairman: Speaking as a citizen?

  Mr Hooper: Speaking as a citizen I think it is a mistake. I know it is not a view shared by the BBC. The BBC argument is that accuracy and impartiality are central to public service broadcasting. Speaking as an individual, if you re-ran Hutton I think it would have been a different outcome if there had been a complaints process and an independent regulator, and the personality issues would have, to a certain extent, diminished.

  Q2184  Chairman: Can you take us through that, it is a rather important point?

  Mr Hooper: The fundamental issue that led to Hutton was the famous broadcast by Gilligan at six o'clock in the morning which allegedly contained inaccuracies. If that had been ITV that would have come to Ofcom as a complaint. Indeed, the Government were the complaining body in this particular case and they would have been required to say, "We are making a complaint" which in itself is an interesting mechanism because if you do not make a complaint, you do not make a complaint, if you do make a complaint, you do make a complaint. So there would have been a requirement for a complaint to have been lodged. Then immediately some of the chemistry and some of the chemical tension get a little bit lost and we get into looking at that programme, looking at the evidence around it and so on.

  Q2185  Chairman: Had that been a broadcast on Channel 4 News or something of that kind you are saying that the relationships would have been different.

  Mr Hooper: It would still have been a serious issue. I know the BBC disagrees with this position, but I think if I were sitting there as the BBC with an accuracy issue or an impartiality issue there is a danger of them saying, "Of course it's accurate, of course it's impartial" but you are coming from the same organisation. With the Trust it is different; the Trust is further away from the BBC so the Trust structure is much more like an independent regulatory structure so it is different. In those days the governors were both the management of the BBC and the regulators of the BBC and therefore if the governors are saying, "This is fine, this is accurate, this is impartial" does that have as much weight as if an independent body has looked at the evidence? I think that is the question.

  Q2186  Chairman: Would you exclude Alistair Campbell still coming down the telephone wires trying to actually influence producers' and editors' comments on that?

  Mr Hooper: I would not know about it and I would not comment on it. Again that seems to me a very important point. Ofcom is an on-screen regulator; we do not regulate, for example, websites. It is what is actually on the screen that we regulate.

  Q2187  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Coming back to my question, are there any reforms that might enable it to perform its functions more effectively so maybe one of the answers to that is to have some formal role with regards to the BBC.

  Mr Hooper: I do not think that would make the Content Board more or less effective. I think it is a BBC matter; I think it is a very important matter. As I said, with the BBC Trust—with Michael Lyons as Chairman—I think there is now blue water between the Executive Board chaired by Mark Thompson and the Trust where actually you do have a greater separation. I think it is less of an issue. You asked me a very direct question and I gave you a direct answer.

  Q2188  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: This is something we could pursue, this question of the relationship between the Trust and the Executive Board of the BBC but that is not a path I am going down.

  Mr Hooper: Just to be clear, on harm and offence and on fairness and privacy—which are the other four horsemen of the Apocalypse—Ofcom does regulate these, so there is a regulatory relationship and I think it works pretty well.

  Q2189  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: Putting the BBC to one side for a minute, are there other reforms?

  Mr Hooper: I will not comment on my successor, but during my time at Ofcom I think the Content Board worked well; it was able to fulfil the issues. There are concerns about citizenship. I think it was a good structure and I think the deputy chairman point worked well and I do not see major tinkering with it.

  Q2190  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: You say you do not see major tinkering, but could I ask you just to think about tinkering with it and I wonder if you might think it better if the Content Board were established as an independent board, independently financed? There is a perception from some consumer interest organisations like the VLV that the way in which the differential between those two organisations works shows the Content Board to be less important.

  Mr Hooper: Certainly during my time there I actually think that by being plugged into the power structure of Ofcom in the sense of it being a sub-committee of the main board with two members from the Content Board being on the main board, that gave us significant influence in a way that had we been outside the body of church we might have had less influence on these very, very difficult issues. What it meant was that we were there when that balancing act between consumer and citizen was played out. The Consumer Advisory Committee which sat outside the structure was of course also there with their reports, but I think in the case of the citizenship issue—which is, as I said before, less well-defined—being plugged into the power structure, the structure of the organisation, was itself a great benefit. I would not put it outside. There are a lot of citizen bodies outside and we were very willing to meet; we had many seminars together and we were very careful to consult them and other bodies, MediaWatch for example.

  Q2191  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: How much independence did you have? Did you have your own independent budget? Did you have your own research commissioning authority? Going back to the earlier question, comparing complaints and defining what your position is, the perception for many citizenship interest organisations is that the Content Board lacked that authority.

  Mr Hooper: Absolutely not on Tier 1 complaints. That is an incorrect view because the main board did not get involved; the main board did not even get involved with Jerry Springer. Jerry Springer was probably the biggest number while I was there and it did not get involved with that. We had a Content team of colleagues sitting behind the board, it was not just a board. In my case we had Mr Suter and Mr Banatvala and a very strong team who were colleagues of Ofcom. We were able to ask for research and policy if we wished. We were not in a position of saying that we could not do our own research.

  Q2192  Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick: Do you accept the imbalance between the two, between the consumer panel and the Content Board in terms of its resourcing, its independence and its public voice?

  Mr Hooper: It probably had less public voice in the sense that it was unusual for the chairman of the Content Board to be on a public platform, but it was not unusual for Mr Suter to be on a public platform and I would occasionally be with him. I think in terms of real influence on real decisions affecting citizens I was extremely pleased with the level of attention that was paid by Ofcom. It was not just an economic regulator. I know that that was the fear, that this will just be an economic regulator but that was not true in my time and I do not feel I was in any way constrained by that.

  Q2193  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: To follow up on that, one of the comments was of course that the consumer panel published what it was saying and feeling and that had some influence as far as public awareness of the issues that were being discussed. I know the situation is not quite the same, but is there any reason why the whole of the doings of the Content Board should not be published as such so that everybody could see the process that you have all gone through and, indeed, at a later stage, what happened when you went to the whole of the Ofcom main board?

  Mr Hooper: First of all, certainly in my time there was publication of notes of the Content Board and of the main board, so that was there.

  Q2194  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I am talking about in the public domain.

  Mr Hooper: Yes, in the public domain. Also, very importantly, we published all of our adjudications on Tier 1 complaints. There is a level of transparency about the way in which meetings worked and so on.

  Q2195  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Would you object, as it were, to reporters coming in and taking a note of what was said at the Content Board?

  Mr Hooper: That is a very interesting question. There was a side to me which would have said that the Content Board could have open meetings and that was vigorously debated and I lost. I did not get my way and there are some very good reasons why I did not get my way, commercial confidentiality being one of them. There were sensitive issues but we definitely tried to be as open and transparent as we were because they were issues that were part of the public debate.

  Q2196  Lord Grocott: What were the numbers of complaints which you were processing?

  Mr Hooper: I cannot remember but large numbers, very large numbers.

  Q2197  Lord Grocott: Can you not give me a clearer idea than that?

  Mr Hooper: It is two years ago.

  Q2198  Lord Grocott: Even two years ago because it is quite important to get a picture.

  Mr Hooper: I can ask Mr Suter who is sitting behind me. It is around ten thousand.

  Q2199  Lord Grocott: Would that include petitions and things of that sort? I am always slightly surprised about how relatively few there are. The average member of the public spends 25 hours a week watching television; that is a pretty big consumer base.

  Mr Hooper: I would turn that around and say that that is quite an encouraging testament to the quality of a lot of British broadcasting. On the whole I think it has a lot of quality in it. I think the Code of Practice has driven quality into it and I think broadcasters are, relatively speaking, careful about their responsibilities towards the Code of Practice and do see it very much as something that they believe in as well. I think you could turn it around.

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