Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2200 - 2219)


Mr Richard Hooper CBE

  Q2200  Lord King of Bridgwater: To follow on Lord Grocott's question, how many of those complaints were actually against the BBC about accuracy and impartiality where you had to write a letter back saying that it was nothing to do with you?

  Mr Hooper: We must have had some. I do not know what the figures were. I do not think there were a lot.

  Q2201  Lord King of Bridgwater: What I am getting at is do you not think the public are thoroughly confused?

  Mr Hooper: No, I do not think so. We made it clear that this was a matter for the BBC.

  Q2202  Lord King of Bridgwater: I thought you said you should cover accuracy and impartiality of the BBC.

  Mr Hooper: No, I was asked a very straight question as a citizen today and I answered that as I did. That is not the current governance position.

  Q2203  Lord King of Bridgwater: I am not trying to embarrass you. It just seems to me that in this slightly confused situation I am amazed that the general public would actually be able to distinguish between who was responsible for what. In other words were there letters coming out from you saying, "We can accept the complaint if it is about ITV but we cannot accept it if it is about the BBC".

  Mr Hooper: That is correct on accuracy and impartiality.

  Q2204  Lord Maxton: If you get a complaint post-broadcast—Jerry Springer, for example,—if you found in favour of those complaining, what actually could you have done about it?

  Mr Hooper: The ultimate sanction was a fine and that did happen.

  Q2205  Lord Maxton: How many people did that happen to?

  Mr Hooper: I do not know what the latest statistic is but a significant amount of fining has gone on. Sanctions are monetary and real and can be sizeable.

  Chairman: I would like to move onto Ofcom's role in media mergers. Lord King?

  Q2206  Lord King of Bridgwater: This is this complicated situation about what powers Ofcom has to initiate an investigation. They cannot do it initially off their own bat, they have to wait and see if the secretary of state has issued an intervention notice and then they can come in to bat. Do you think that is right or do you think they should have the power to initiate an investigation?

  Mr Hooper: My view—again this is not an Ofcom view necessarily, it is my view as an individual—is that where it is at the moment as a secretary of state power is entirely reasonable. One of the issues we have—which we will perhaps come onto later on—is about whether the secretary of state should be able to reject the advice of regulators on mergers with public interest consideration. I think it is terribly important that the system of independent regulation that we have is sustained and clear and there does not develop too much proximity between the independent regulator and the secretary of state. I think there is a need for some blue water between them. Personally I think the secretary of state's powers to initiate a media merger on public interest grounds is entirely reasonable.

  Q2207  Lord King of Bridgwater: Should Ofcom have the power to anticipate that or should it have to wait for the secretary of state?

  Mr Hooper: I think it is perfectly sensible to stay with the current structure; personally I would not change it.

  Q2208  Chairman: You were going to answer the further question.

  Mr Hooper: It is about whether the secretary of state is able to reject the advice of regulators on whether a merger raises public interest considerations. I think the answer is that in the end the secretary of state can reject the advice of the independent regulators. One of the things that in my ten years of regulating I sometimes found most difficult to get across was when people said, "Richard, how do you dare regulate harm and offence when you are not elected?" and I would say, "Absolutely correct. We are not elected, we are subject to the public appointment process but we are not elected." We are creatures of statute; we gain our powers from laws that are democratically arrived at. In the end with things like cross-media ownership and media ownership, I think the regulator should always be wary about having too much opinion in that area. Clearly it does have a view but in the end it is a political judgment and I think when it is a political judgment politicians should make those judgments. It is terribly easy for it to say that this is a regulator's job; I do not believe it is. There are big politics and policy issues where the politicians have to step up to the plate and take those decisions.

  Q2209  Chairman: You say "step up to the plate", that assumes there is some sort of consequence to the action they take. Do you not find it rather curious that politicians—very senior politicians and prime ministers—who spend a great deal of time trying to persuade the media owners to do their wishes (we have had evidence of that throughout this inquiry) should also be in charge of or have the last say as far as media mergers are concerned? Is there not a conflict?

  Mr Hooper: Of course there is a conflict in a democratic society, but I still think that there are some of those issues which, in the end, are fundamentally political issues. Whilst the regulator may have views on them, the regulator is not the last voice on them, it is a political matter.

  Q2210  Chairman: What is the defence for the citizen? If one again looks back on some of the mergers that have taken place they have been waved through by ministers—ministers who happen to have a big majority in the House of Commons—so what can the citizen do about it?

  Mr Hooper: If there is a public interest issue the regulator is clearly asked for its views on it and does give views on it and any sensible regulator would give, in the case of media ownership, the issue of media plurality which is at the heart of these issues. How many voices does a typical family in Norwich have coming into their house owned by how many people? That is a classic media plurality issue and I think when the regulator, when asked for advice on these matters, will give it. However, in the end, I believe those are political issues.

  Q2211  Chairman: You are talking not just about broadcasting but about the press as well, are you?

  Mr Hooper: I am basically talking about broadcasting because we had no statutory remit over the press at all. We were a broadcasting regulator in that sense.

  Q2212  Lord Maxton: You quite clearly said earlier that you regulated on-screen; you could not regulate websites.

  Mr Hooper: Yes.

  Q2213  Lord Maxton: Surely those two are becoming increasingly merged together.

  Mr Hooper: I absolutely agree.

  Q2214  Lord Maxton: Do you think the laws should be changed in some way in relation to the internet?

  Mr Hooper: I think we have in our society a fundamental difficulty in the famous convergence of the world. It has happened. If you go onto YouTube now the moment you call that page up, up comes not text but straight into moving pictures and those are moving pictures from existing commercial broadcasters and so on. I think that it is a difficult issue because it is all about whether you roll out statutory regulation onto the internet. I think there is great unwillingness to do this in this country. Indeed, one of the big debates that we had in my time was the European Directive which sought to significantly roll out regulation onto the internet. I think the United Kingdom was one of the voices that very much said that that was overdoing it, so I think it is a big issue.

  Q2215  Lord Maxton: It is said that you will be able to control your on-screen content through your computer wirelessly onto your television screen which then, in a sense—because you are paying the licence fee or whatever—brings you into a different field altogether.

  Mr Hooper: I remember one of the earliest conversations that Lord Currie and I had with mobile network operators—the O2s and Vodafones of the world—was an agenda item (I was there as chairman of the Content Board) which was content regulation. I remember Lord Currie and I saying very clearly to the chief executive in question, "This is not part of our statutory remit; we are not seeking to extend it but now listen carefully. If you do not get your act together, self-regulate your content on mobile phones"—it is a very similar argument with internet service providers (ISPs) and I said this at an ISP after-dinner speech—"then sooner or later the combined forces of public opinion and the political forces of our society, will combine together and will come down the turnpike and will do things to you that you may not like. So get your act together and regulate the content on mobile phones yourselves. Be as careful as you can about these issues because these are hot issues. There is no statutory remit but you might be surprised what will happen if you do not take these issues seriously." I think that was a useful conversation and the same conversation is going on currently in relation to internet service providers, copyright and piracy issues. To what extent are internet service providers responsible for the content that they carry? Those are big issues and I think the message that we had was that we believe very strongly in self-regulation at Ofcom. As you may remember, we moved the regulation of broadcast advertising from ourselves to the Advertising Standards Authority, an act actually of de-regulation in one sense although the statutory backing is still there. We felt that he Advertising Standards Authority was way better at doing that because it was doing outdoor advertising, it does internet advertising, it does print advertising and then it took on broadcast advertising. I think that has worked extremely well.

  Q2216  Chairman: You issued that threat—if I can put it in these terms—albeit in an after dinner speech, but is it a threat you can carry through?

  Mr Hooper: No, I would not carry it through; I said the combined forces of public opinion would do that.

  Q2217  Chairman: Are there weapons at your disposal to intervene in this way.

  Mr Hooper: British society can choose, through its political governance, to regulate frankly anything that moves if it wishes to, assuming it is compliant with European directives. The point about these issues is that they are the sort of Jerry Springer type issues; these are very sensitive issues.

  Q2218  Chairman: One last question to finish on the merger point, is it necessary to have both Ofcom and the Competition Commission investigating the public interest implications of a media merger?

  Mr Hooper: My answer to that is that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and I do not think there is any evidence of it being broken. What I mean by that is that I think there is a positive advantage to Ofcom and the Competition Authority, but of course you will know, because you gave Ofcom the powers and Ofcom is itself a competition authority, that there is positive benefit to having the sectoral regulator who knows a huge amount about radio and television and telecoms and spectrum alongside a competition authority which in this country is a very generic competition authority (it covers everything from supermarkets to broadcasting). I think there is a great advantage in having them together. In Australia the competition authority interested in the competition aspect of sectoral regulation has gone into the competition authority and there are separate teams. That is another way of doing it but I think, given that you need with media mergers sectoral expertise and given that Ofcom has that significantly, then I think the two should be kept together to get the best of both worlds.

  Q2219  Lord Grocott: Turning to radio ownership, on the one hand there are pressures from within the industry to consolidate and amalgamate and there will be certain benefits to that, including maybe newsrooms being pooled and journalists assisting one another in different specialisms and so on. That is the argument for merger, but on the side of the journalists the NUJ they say there is very little evidence as to there being any benefits in terms of newsrooms being better resourced from mergers. Do you have any views on that?

  Mr Hooper: I suppose consolidation of the radio industry has been the story of my last ten years when I was Chairman of the Radio Authority. I was a member of the Radio Authority under the wise leadership of Lord Chalfont in the early 1990s. Consolidation has been the play of the commercial operators for years. I would like to point out that there was significant consolidation and liberalisation in the Communications Act and one of the results of that was the merger between GWR and Capital Radio (GCap Media). Those of you who are shareholders were not happy about that; it was not a very successful merger and yet it was the net result of that consolidation. Consolidation and business mergers are quite sensitive areas. There has been a long history of it. They require further consolidation to which I would say a number of things. In my valedictory address to the industry when I left Ofcom two years ago—there were broadcasters in the audience and they probably were not necessarily interested in hearing me—I said, "In my experience, after ten years in this business, if you spend as much time managing the regulator as you did on dealing with customers, products and marketing and so on, it might be helpful". One of the problems of a regulated industry is that the regulated parties end up spending a lot of not middle-management time but senior management time managing the regulatory interface. The danger is that commercial radio companies and other companies spend too much time on the regulatory issues. The real competition and the real problems hitting commercial radio are nothing to do with regulation, it is to do with the internet, it is to do with the new electronic world of media. That is where the real attack is coming because the advertising is moving, although not completely away obviously, towards the internet. Having said all that, speaking as a citizen not representing anybody's views, I am relatively relaxed about it because I think if Professor Barnett did a definition today of the industry—the industry we are talking about today, in 2008—it would not be the radio industry, it would not be the television industry, I do not think it would be the broadcasting industry. This is a world where today the internet is such a significant player in this world. The Competition Authority always wants to define the market in order to find out whether you have a dominant market share and I think if you draw that today you would draw it with the internet and YouTube and My Space inside that circle and therefore at that point I think consolidation of individual components is more likely.

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