Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Thursday, 05 June 2008
Public Service Broadcasting Review
5 June 2008
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Stewart Purvis ) Ofcom
Mr Denis Wolinski )
The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
I welcome Mr Stewart Purvis, who will perhaps explain his role, and Mr Denis Wolinski, the regional director of Ofcom. They are here to make a presentation on the review of public service broadcasting (PSB).
Mr Stewart Purvis (Ofcom):
Good morning. I am the partner for content and standards at Ofcom. We do not use old-fashioned terms such as “broadcasting regulator”; however, I am the closest thing to a head of broadcasting at Ofcom. I am not responsible for the transmission of programmes; my remit is to oversee content across the UK’s public service broadcaster channels.
Denis Wolinski runs our office in Northern Ireland, and is probably familiar to the members of the Committee. My background is as a television journalist; I was at ITN for 30 years, having started off as a TV producer. I first visited Northern Ireland in 1972 and have been coming here fairly regularly ever since. I ended up as the chief executive before retiring, becoming an academic, and then, somehow, a regulator — a process that some broadcasters allow themselves to be seduced into.
I will tell you about the review that is under way. We are now in the second stage. The first stage was to put forward a consultation document. We are now in the process of trying to raise the debate and to get feedback, and we would appreciate hearing the views of Members of the Assembly and particularly of members of this Committee. I will take you through some of the first few headlines from the review. I am the co-director of the review, but I am particularly responsible now for the issues arising from the nations and the regions of the UK.
The first slide on the presentation looks at the UK as a whole and tries to tell a fairly simple story. Broadband is expanding throughout the UK, as is digital television. That expansion offers more choice and more channels whether on television or online to viewers and users of content. Therefore we should not be surprised that with more choice being available, the audience share for the five main channels is falling. Nevertheless, the majority of television viewing is via those five channels.
What do consumers and viewers expect and hope for from public service broadcasting? On the next slide, we have set that out in four purposes: to help people understand the world; to stimulate knowledge and learning; to reflect the different cultural identities in the UK; and to represent diversity and alternative viewpoints. The audience research that we have done shows that people still rank those purposes highly, particularly in informing their understanding of the world. The majority of viewers regard those purposes as important.
On the next page, we can see that the audience not only regards the service as important, but regards competition, or plurality, as it is sometimes called as important. Seventy-five per cent of the audience attaches the greatest importance to news and current affairs about the UK and the world, and also about their nation and region. The audience attaches particular importance to programmes that are made in the UK and reflect UK life, as opposed to those that are made in the United States that reflect American life. The audience particularly noted the value and importance of plurality of more than one supplier — in other words, of children’s programming reflecting UK life.
A majority of the audience highly ranked the plurality, or competition, in current affairs, specialist factual programmes, dramas about the UK, and other programmes about the region — which is particularly true of the nations, as opposed to the regions of England. Comedies and sitcoms were also rated on importance for competition.
The audience were, frankly, less concerned about whether there should be competition in areas such as religious programmes and schools programmes. That is not to say that they do not think that those genres are important, but they do not think that competition for those areas is as important.
In order to make progress, we have tried to envisage a situation past 2010 or 2012, so it is worth emphasising that we are looking some way ahead. Model 1, which we have headlined “Evolution” is a version of the status quo, incorporating the role of the BBC, ITV stations such as UTV, and Channel 4. However, we expect that those channels — certainly the commercial channels — will wish to include less public service content. It is for us to advise Parliament, which will make the final decisions, as to how much public service content it is reasonable to ask commercial broadcasters to produce, given the changing circumstances.
Model two suggests that there be no public-service-broadcasting role for commercial channels such as ITV and Five, and that the BBC take the majority role in public service broadcasting, but that the market — in other words, Sky channels, and online activities — help redress the balance in the competition.
In model three we see an important role, not just for the BBC but also for Channel 4, and suggest that there be some limited competitive funding — funding made available for those who wish to make programmes that meet the criteria of public service broadcasting.
Under model four, the BBC would continue, but there would be a wider range of sources of people funded to make public service content.
As to how those could be funded, the first method suggested in our presentation, regulatory assets, relates to spectrum. Spectrum is a word that was not often used in broadcasting, certainly for the first half of my career, but is absolutely the key word nowadays. It relates to the privilege, given to certain broadcasters, of going automatically into every home using broadcast spectrum — in more common parlance, transmission airwaves — and in return for those privileges they have to meet certain public responsibilities. There is still a deal to be done by giving commercial broadcasters automatic access via — in the future — digital terrestrial transmission, in return for public purposes.
A second option is to spend direct public money. That is something that is thought by many people not to happen much, but in fact it does. S4C is directly funded from central Government in order to provide Welsh language programming. There are other, more modest, interventions in the use of public money. The licence fee is a third potential option of funding. It is sometimes described as “top-slicing”. Another way of looking at it is that there is an amount of money that, at the moment, is given to the BBC for the funding of digital switch-over and does not directly relate to programmes. That money could be used to fund public service content when the digital switch-over is completed.
A fourth possible funding option involves what are known as “industry levies”. That option is currently being discussed in France. It involves the potential levying of a tax on part of the media industry, in return for the content that they may use. That is the UK wide picture. I will now hand over to Denis, who will try to put that into the context particular to Northern Ireland.
Mr Denis Wolinski (Ofcom):
The next section of our presentation deals with the PSB vision for Northern Ireland. Under the terms of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom is required to carry out a review at least every five years, and the purpose of that review is to look at how we might strengthen and maintain public service broadcasting.
In reviewing the situation in Northern Ireland, we formulated six main goals for any new PSB system. The first is to deliver appropriate levels of high quality content, made both in the UK generally and in Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland audiences. The second goal is to provide content that accurately reflects life in Northern Ireland to audiences throughout the UK. I think there have been some concerns that often the view of Northern Ireland is a stereotypical one. Likewise, Northern Ireland is not seen in the way that many other parts of the UK are, for instance, in soaps, and various other series, whether it be ‘ Coronation Street’, ‘Taggart’, or even ‘Bergerac’.
The third goal is to provide diverse content that serves all of the communities in Northern Ireland with a plurality of viewpoints — that is an important democratic principle. The fourth is to include appropriate levels of content in indigenous languages, both Irish and Ulster Scots, with guaranteed public funding. The fifth goal is to be sufficiently flexible to respond to future audience, market and political changes, and the sixth is to ensure appropriate parity with other nations of the UK in relation to all of the above.
Ofcom looked at the current situation with viewers across the board in Northern Ireland, and the responses to the statements that we put to people are higher than the UK average. Some 95% agreed that television is an important source of news for people in Northern Ireland; 93% agreed that it is important for both UTV and BBC Northern Ireland to show news programmes about their nation — so competition and plurality are important to people in Northern Ireland; 85% agreed that it is important to show programmes that take place in different parts of the UK; 81% agree that news about their nation is of a generally high standard — people believe that the news that we get from BBC Northern Ireland and UTV is of a high quality; and 81% said that they would like to see the main TV channels show programmes that give them news and information about their local area. Those are all very high responses.
Early-evening news viewing in Northern Ireland is much higher than the average for the UK. The UTV news, which comes on first, attracts 39% of viewers — the highest percentage of all the evening news programme across the UK. BBC Northern Ireland’s news, which comes on after that, attracts 28% of viewers. That is a higher percentage than that for BBC Scotland and is the same as the UK average. It appears that people in Northern Ireland often watch both UTV news and BBC Northern Ireland news. UK-wide news is of more importance elsewhere, but very often viewers in Northern Ireland want to see local news first.
Portrayal on network television is an important principle for people in Northern Ireland. Eighty per cent of people want themselves and this part of the world to be shown on UK networks, which is also above the average.
Some questions remain about indigenous language provision. We know that under the terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, TG4 has been made more widely available. As Stewart said, Ofcom has played a role in ensuring that spectrum should be available. We are aware that indigenous language broadcasting within Northern Ireland is relatively undeveloped compared with other parts of the UK, in particular Wales and Scotland.
Public funding for Irish language broadcasting is in doubt. That will have some impact on the independent production sector. According to the Deloitte report, between 2005 and 2007, 823 jobs were created in that sector, which is the equivalent of 123 years of full-time employment. We know from our engagement, in particular, with the Ulster-Scots community that there is a need to affirm cultural as well as linguistic diversity.
The situation in Northern Ireland has some unique characteristics. BBC Northern Ireland is quite well resourced, but it is the smallest of the three devolved parts of the UK. It costs the same to make a television programme whether it is for 1·7 million people or for five million people. BBC Northern Ireland does not get the same share of the licence fee as, let us say, BBC Scotland. That has resource implications for BBC Northern Ireland if it is to meet all the expectations thrust upon it to make both regional and network programmes, and the demands to make programmes in two indigenous languages — Irish and Ulster Scots.
UTV is in a unique situation among the UK channel 3 licensees. ITV’s networking arrangements mean that its contributions are pegged at RPI, but its advertising revenue is not. UTV is able to access an audience in the South, which it is able to monetise and to get a premium for advertising. In the future, if ITV plc removes itself from the public-service-broadcasting landscape, UTV will be faced with a problem, because most of its programming is part of the network. UTV would still have its public-service-broadcasting licence, which requires it to show news and current affairs, and so on, but it would have to find a new network. That is a serious possibility. One of the main purposes of the meeting today is to flag that up. In fact, we are holding a conference tomorrow that will look at that. We hope to have a much wider debate on that.
In our document, we suggested that the present widespread availability of RTÉ, which reaches about 70% of the audience in Northern Ireland, provides a great degree of plurality. Perhaps that is something that should be capitalised upon.
We are open to consultation until 19 June 2008, and we would very much welcome your comments, either today or in writing. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Stewart and Denis. A number of members have indicated that they wish to ask questions.
Mr D Bradley:
Good morning, gentlemen. Will you explain again the difficulties that you see UTV facing?
Mr S Purvis:
There is an assumption that ITV will always remain a public service broadcaster. However, Michael Grade, ITV’s executive chairman, made it clear in a speech at Westminster the other day, that one should not make that assumption. There is an alternative route for ITV as the licence holder for England and Wales: that is, it effectively ceases to be a public service broadcaster. As part of an alternative strategy, which it may or may not wish to use, it would distribute itself, via a number of platforms, as a UK-wide commercial broadcaster that does not have any public service commitments at all.
His opening position is that he does not wish to take that course but he, or ITV, may do so. In that situation, there is, as Denis has said, effectively no sustaining service: in other words, there is no ‘ Coronation Street’, no ‘Emmerdale’ coming, as of right, to an Ulster broadcaster like UTV. UTV’s schedule would contain UTV news, current affairs and entertainment programmes, but there would be a gap. What fills the gap currently would be taken off by the mother ship and shown on its own channel elsewhere.
That raises a series of issues. Consider our models: in model 1 — evolution — that is not so much a problem as long as ITV wants to be in that game. However, in models 2, 3 and 4, ITV is no longer in that game. The future of UTV arises as a serious issue in models 2, 3 and 4, and, to be honest, it also arises, as a bit of an issue, under model 1.
Denis, would you like to add anything?
ITV may choose to take the kind of licence that Sky One or Discovery Channel has. It could hand back the licence it has at the moment, which carries many obligations, saying, “thank you, but no, thank you”, and asks for a licence such as Sky One’s that carries no obligations. It could then broadcast across the whole UK.
Mr D Bradley:
Do you mean that, under such circumstances, ITV might not produce its own dramas?
Mr S Purvis:
Commercially and logically, ITV would consider it good sense to continue producing its dramas, but it would not have a relationship with a national — an Ulster or a Scottish — broadcaster.
Mr D Bradley:
Surely it would be in ITV’s interest to sell those programmes to the regional broadcasters?
Mr S Purvis:
It would, but it would put in place an alternative distribution system. It has done so by buying a digital multiplex, which gives it automatic entry into a large number of homes in the UK via terrestrial television. It has access via Sky, cable and Internet. It may offer to do a deal with us, the regulator, in return for fewer commitments to provide access to homes. However, it has access to homes organised in any case, and if it cannot do a deal with us on access to homes, it will go away and take ‘ Coronation Street’ and all its prize assets elsewhere. Therefore, the schedules of STV, UTV — not so much ITV Wales, because, technically, it owns that —Channel Television and other parts of the federal structure, would be left without their key UK-wide programmes.
The terminology sometimes confuses people. ITV plc has the licences for England and Wales, but not for Northern Ireland, Scotland or Channel. ITV plc is the dominant part and makes most of the programming. It could leave Channel 3 completely and go to Channel 400, get a licence and broadcast across the whole of the UK, just as Sky One does, so that UTV is left out of the picture. ITV could then simply not sell its programmes to UTV, because it could be broadcasting to Northern Ireland on another number. In the digital world, most people receive many stations, and whether it is through digital terrestrial via the aerial, satellite or cable, they will get that new station — whatever it may be called. That company may not call itself ITV any longer. UTV could then be left sitting there, with its nine-and-a half hours of local broadcasting but without ‘ Coronation Street’ or any of the programming that ITV has taken away.
Mr S Purvis:
UTV is well aware of that, and we are meeting with it to consider where that leaves it. However, there is not yet a wide public understanding of the implications of the situation.
Mr D Bradley:
Your surveys show that people in Northern Ireland like to see themselves portrayed on the networks. We have had discussions with many from the arts community, and from drama, in particular, including actors and their unions. In England and Wales, ‘Emmerdale’, ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘EastEnders’ serve to sustain the dramatic arts community, but Northern Ireland has no such television drama. Many people are forced to go elsewhere to seek employment. Have you any responsibility for encouraging our local broadcasters to increase the output of home-produced drama?
Mr S Purvis:
We have a responsibility for overseeing and enforcing, even, quotas of production outside London — that is the definition — rather than in specific parts of the UK. The BBC Trust, which oversees much of the BBC, recently announced some new initiatives on that front, which has been a source of much debate inside the corporation. One interpretation of that is that the BBC is more conscious of the issue.
On the other side of the fence at ITV, Michael Grade has made it clear that he wants to commit to less out-of-London production. He argues that ITV does a lot production in, for example, the north of England, and production falls where the ideas and talent are located. Channel 4 has taken a partnership course with regional-development agencies and other interested bodies to try to genuinely devolve production further outside London.
Therefore, the BBC is discussing doing more, ITV wants to commit to doing less and Channel 4 is trying to do more in partnership. Denis will explain what that means for Northern Ireland.
Only the BBC has committed to more Northern Ireland productions. It has said that 17% of its productions would come from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland’s share of that would be approximately 3%. As a publicly owned broadcaster, Channel 4 has also committed to producing programmes from Northern Ireland, but it has not specified a figure. There are a few programmes from Northern Ireland on Channel 4, but there are none on the ITV network, because its productions outside London do not have to be from anywhere in particular. Over the years, Five has produced the odd programme but not much. Therefore, not much has come from Northern Ireland out of the main public-service broadcasters for one reason or another. Only the BBC has committed to doing more.
Mr D Bradley:
The figures from the Irish Language Broadcast Fund are encouraging — 823 jobs have been created in the two years of its existence. Unfortunately, it is only funded until 2009, and I have spoken to our Minister about that issue. Are you in a position to make representations about that fund?
Our role is not to say how broadcasting should be run, but we can examine the situation. We are reviewing public service broadcasting, of which indigenous-language broadcasting is a part. In the review, we have flagged up how Northern Ireland compares to Wales and Scotland. It is for Government, not Ofcom, to say who should be doing what. We can identify where there are gaps. However, I am not sure if the responsibility lies with the Government here or with the Government at Westminster, because broadcasting is a reserved matter.
Mr D Bradley:
Is the £90 million and £12 million that Welsh and Scottish broadcasting receive respectively annual?
Yes; although the Scottish money comes from the Scottish Executive. The Welsh money comes from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), because the Welsh system was set up 25 years ago, before devolution. It is difficult to know quite where the responsibility lies.
I apologise for missing the beginning of the presentation.
Are all public service broadcasters meant to reflect the diversity of the regions of the United Kingdom, or is it just the BBC?
Mr S Purvis:
There are two issues: production — where programmes are made; and portrayal. The measurement of production has proved to be quite a difficult thing to do, so much so that, recently, we made a public announcement that ITV had fallen short of its publicly agreed quotas for production outside London. There are various discussions about why that came about.
Portrayal is even more difficult to measure scientifically. Although it is discussed, it is not a matter on which the regulator formally holds broadcasters to account, and that is an interesting and important difference. With regard to the point raised by Mr Bradley concerning the creative industries in Northern Ireland, they are to do with jobs and spending. The matter of portrayal —
Broadcasters are not held to account on portrayal.
Mr S Purvis:
There are no formal quotas because they would be hard to implement. For instance, ITV points out that it shot a programme in Cornwall that was about Cornish life; however, it was counted as a London programme because it was edited and formally produced there, and that is the difficulty.
There may not be formal quotas, but it must be possible to look at productions that are broadcast throughout the United Kingdom to determine whether any of them portray life in Northern Ireland. I cannot think of any that do. It is not a question of quotas. If the number of programmes that portrays life in Northern Ireland is zero, it is not hard to conclude that there is a deficiency. If there is a commitment to reflect diversity surely, something should be produced. Whether those programmes last for 15 minutes, half an hour or two hours is another matter. Why are broadcasters not held to account?
Mr S Purvis:
UTV holds a channel 3 licence, which covers its commitment to its transmission area, and, consequently, it is required to produce a certain number of hours about life in that community. Parliament oversaw that situation. Clearly, there has been a desire for more production outside London, but Parliament has not made that specific to certain parts of the UK. Perhaps Denis might know whether that issue has arisen in Northern Ireland particularly.
Some programmes, such as ‘Coast’ and ‘Restoration, have included Northern Ireland, and, of course, programmes are made through Northern Ireland, such as ‘Murphy’s Law’ and ‘Messiah’. There may be portrayal issues with those. Does a programme that includes an actor such as Jimmy Nesbitt count as reflecting a region of the UK? Is it only about hearing a Northern Ireland accent?
One of the things that we are struggling with at the moment —
That sounds like a bit of creative accounting; however, that is true of broadcasting generally. You are stretching it a wee bit.
As part of the current review, we are trying to find a way of capturing what “portrayal” means, so, if you have any creative suggestions, we would appreciate them.
You fellows get paid enough to work out those things; we just complain.
On a similar issue regarding portrayal, last week, in the wake of the new film, ‘Hunger’, based on the life of Bobby Sands, Gary Mitchell, one of our most notable playwrights, made some interesting comments. Referring to diversity within Northern Ireland — not just regional diversity — he said:
“Trying to get the BBC or Channel Four interested in the Protestant community, I don’t even bother at all as it’s impossible.”
If I said that, people might say, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Or if Ken said it, they might say, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”
Mr K Robinson:
However, Gary Mitchell, an internationally respected playwright and, uniquely, one of the few playwrights from the Protestant community who has remained a unionist, made those remarks. Many playwrights from a Protestant background have become nationalists or republicans, but Gary Mitchell is solidly identified with the Protestant community. Interestingly, in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, Lindy McDowell said,
“If he was talking about any other section of the community that would be recognised as a pretty damning statement … never mind Hollywood, surely, parity or equality begins at home.”
There is a perception that there is a problem, which Gary Mitchell has articulated very eloquently, and which is shared widely by people who think about those things. It is an issue that the Committee raised with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in relation to arts generally, because the two are not unrelated.
That perception may not necessarily show up in a survey because people’s expectations are quite often shaped by what they are used to. They may think that that is just the way it is; their aspirations are not perhaps what they should be. How would you deal with the problem that Gary Mitchell identified?
Earlier, you highlighted the fact that getting Northern Ireland on the networks at all is a difficulty. Some people still hold stereotypical views. Amongst some London-based commissioners and producers, Northern Ireland is still seen as a troubled place. However, Northern Ireland is not alone; Scotland also experiences those difficulties.
The decisions are down to the commissioners; it is not for the regulator to say what they should commission. However, it is not entirely true that the Protestant community has not been seen. I know this example is from a few years ago, but the ‘Billy’ plays were shot —
That is going back a bit.
It is, yes. It is a problem generally for Northern Ireland rather than —
As Ken has just reminded me, we should bear in mind what age Kenneth Branagh is now, because he was a wee boy when those programmes were made. What you have said confirms the point that I made. If that is the best that you could come up with for an answer, you have reinforced —
I am just wondering how many playwrights there are.
Nelson, your question is how the remit of Ofcom helps to redress that situation.
Yes — and how this Committee and others can address that. Pressure now needs to be exerted on the BBC. The problem has been very eloquently articulated by a respected playwright; one who has won awards and has had his plays broadcast by the BBC. That is his view, and it is the view of many others. How do we deal with that?
He has been broadcast by the BBC?
In the past, his plays have been broadcast, occasionally.
So is he contradicting himself?
No. I am not an expert in this area, but I take his word on this issue. We could check when he last had something broadcast by the BBC. As a Committee, we could perhaps write and ask that. I am not sure of the dates.
One of the difficulties is, when the issue is raised, it is either studiously ignored, or it provokes a reaction in which people want to get into a state of denial about it. How do we get the BBC to deal with the issue?
Mr S Purvis:
The PSB review is the perfect vehicle for doing that. In a formal sense, those issues only arise every so often. On this occasion, it is five years, and we have brought the review forward. That is partly why we are here — to stimulate the debate and, hopefully, hear the views of people around the UK on issues such as portrayal. We do not offer an easy solution. We have put on the table the research, and we have shown how much portrayal on the UK networks matters to people in Northern Ireland. We now want to crystallise the thoughts of different parts of the community and to see if something more can be done.
I have two questions. In the Assembly researcher’s presentation, she said that 40% of BBC programmes in the North are locally produced by the independent sector. Do you think that that is a good thing or a bad thing? The presentation also referred to the inclusion of appropriate levels of content in indigenous language — Irish and Ulster Scots — with guaranteed funding. Do you think that the current level of broadcasting is appropriate? Would guaranteed funding ensure that that is appropriate?
Mr S Purvis:
The BBC is trying to achieve a balance between what it calls the WOWC — a window of wider competition, in terms of ideas from independent producers — while, at the same, trying to keep a sense of scale to its own internal production in order to maintain its position as one of the world’s leading broadcasters.
It seems that the numbers that you mentioned would achieve a good balance between out-of-house production and in-house production. Partly because some staff have left the BBC and set up independent companies, thus guaranteeing a flow of ideas; and partly because the growth of independents has produced some really stimulating new ideas, the independent sector has turned out to be a real powerhouse of ideas, perhaps against some people’s expectations. Channel 4 is almost entirely independent, but that is not the only way to create a schedule.
Denis will answer the question about indigenous languages.
The principle of providing public funding for indigenous languages has been established across the UK, because they are unlikely to be funded by the market. We have indicated that funding exists in Wales for the Welsh language or for Welsh-language broadcasting, in Scotland for Gaelic broadcasting, and Northern Ireland has had the Irish Language Broadcast Fund. However, that funding may not continue.
The BBC deals with Ulster Scots, and Scots, as part of the continuum of how people use everyday language in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. That approach is reflected in the BBC’s overall schedules. Does that answer your question?
To be frank, the cost seems extortionate for some of the bigger, independently produced programmes such as Jonathan Ross’s, which has been in the news recently. How is that balanced by the BBC?
Mr S Purvis:
The BBC recently published a report on that and the issues arising from it. There is the issue of Jonathan Ross’s personal cost — the talent cost of Jonathan Ross — and the fact that people like Ross sometimes work with a production company, sometimes one that they own and sometimes one that they do not own. The BBC Trust oversees the process by which independents are given that work. It seems proper that the BBC Trust keeps an eye on the balance between talent and other costs. To that extent, Jonathan Ross is a one-off. There is talent and presenters who partly own production companies, but it is not normal.
In each of the four models Ofcom identifies, it is envisaged that the market will provide some programming, while the BBC remains the cornerstone for public service broadcasting. On what basis do you believe that the BBC will retain that role?
Mr S Purvis:
On the basis that it has guaranteed funding for a large number of years and that there seems to be public consensus in support of that level of funding. However, the funding of commercial channels is not guaranteed in any way. Channel 4 has drawn attention to the fact that its funding, which is actually commercial, may not be enough to cover its existing programme costs. Therefore, the BBC is the only place — provided it keeps costs under control — where there is no fundamental threat to the viability of its existing programming offer. That cannot be said of everybody else in the market.
In Northern Ireland, 21% of people are still without digital capability. Are you confident of reaching the target of every household going digital by 2012?
Mr S Purvis:
The digital switch-over is in its very early stage. Only the borough surrounding Whitehaven in Cumbria has been turned off, which is not exactly a national sample. However, we are reassured by what has happened and have no reason to believe that the switch-over will not go well everywhere else.
We will be even more comfortable when a large area has been converted, which will test all the systems in place. There is no reason to believe that Northern Ireland will not be switched over in due course and on time.
That 79% has gone up 10% in the past year and another 16% in the previous year. People are becoming more aware. In some ways we are in a fortunate position being near the end. There will be much more publicity on television next year, when Border switches completely. In the next four years, people will gradually become more and more aware of what is happening. In many ways Northern Ireland will be in a better position, because we will learn from experiences elsewhere.
Mr S Purvis:
The other benefit is that it gives UTV more time to adjust to the circumstances, whereas in Scotland, which is facing quite a big switch-over within a year, the issue is much more in their face.
Mr P Ramsey:
The Committee received a detailed presentation from an Assembly researcher on the devolving of broadcasting. The points raised in that presentation apply to the discussion today — particularly in relation to the economic, social and cultural value in developing our own programmes. Indeed, there is a growing momentum among cultural and language groups across Northern Ireland and that we should have our own devolved broadcasting. Does Ofcom not believe that, at a point when we have stability in our own Government, that we should have devolved broadcasting?
You raised the point of having programmes produced outside of London, but we have not seen any evidence of this. That is causing some concern. Whether in relation to the Protestant or loyalist community or not, there is an economic value in having programmes made, produced and filmed in Northern Ireland.
There is also concern about the loss of the Irish Language Broadcast Fund. As a result of this there will be a lack of momentum and a loss of jobs dues to productions not being filmed here. A recent example of this was the film ‘Kings’. Can we have your thoughts generally in light of the presentation from the Assembly researcher?
Mr S Purvis:
We work under a system where broadcasting is a UK-wide matter. There are many arguments to be made both for and against the devolving of that responsibility to the devolved assemblies of the UK.
With respect to the issues that you have raised; it is not clear to me that devolving responsibility for broadcasting to this Assembly would make a specific difference, for example, to the issue of portrayal. Responsibilities would not extend to giving this Assembly — or whatever function was put in place — the right to tell UK-wide broadcasters what they did outside of Northern Ireland.
I can see that, potentially, such a system would give a devolved Parliament more rights to talk about what the licensee in the area might do. However, I cannot see how it might affect, for instance, what ITV plc choose to do in England and Wales about the portrayal of life in Northern Ireland, or indeed what it could do about production in Northern Ireland.
We are happy to engage in the discussions of the merits of the case, against the background that Ofcom works to a brief from Parliament that says that it is a UK-wide, and not a devolved, responsibility. However, on the specifics that you raise, I do not see enormous benefits to the nations of the UK in having devolved responsibility in those areas.
Mr P Ramsey:
It is one opinion, but there is a growing momentum that we would be better off not having direct rule broadcasting as it now exists. It would give more accountability to the process.
Wallace raised the mater of the digital switch-over, and I have raised before with Denis the point about the availability of RTÉ and TG4 when we transfer to the new digital system. Is there a commitment to that and have negotiations taken place with RTÉ and TG4 to ensure that those channels will be available following the digital switch-over in 2012?
That is very much a Government decision. It is not for Ofcom to take political decisions. However, we can provide advice if we are asked.
You mention the case of TG4. Under the Good Friday Agreement there is a commitment by the Government to make it more widely available in Northern Ireland. Ofcom has produced a document on the future of digital terrestrial television (DTT). Here, we pointed out that the spectrum could be made available on a PSB multiplex for TG4; in much the same way as it will be made available for S4C in Wales and the Gaelic Digital Service in Scotland. However, it is not for Ofcom to take those decisions; it is for Government.
Mr P Ramsey:
If we managed our own broadcasting, we would be able to make that type of decision. Surely you are getting an opinion —
You would need to take that up with Westminster.
Mr P Ramsey:
In the same context, surely you have right to reflect the opinion that the people of Northern Ireland want that control? Should you not be doing that on their behalf?
Mr S Purvis:
We are here to represent the citizens and consumers of the UK; wherever they may live. Specifically, we are here as part of this PSB review to try to reflect those views. However, it would be wrong at this point to say that devolvement of one point of our brief is an instant solution.
There is the issue of spectrum and how one divides it. For instance, there are overlaps between the nations. One could not crudely say that this piece of spectrum belongs here or there. The debate is much bigger and wider, and we are happy to engage with it, but we do not offer any instant answers or solutions.
We are in the last five minutes of this session, and Francie wants to be heard.
Not particularly; however, I have been thinking about Nelson’s points about Protestant programmes and Catholic programmes. Could you devise a system where you could monitor the relative volumes of Protestant and Catholic programmes? However, I think that it is a bit much. It reminds me of a famous headline that appeared in a certain newspaper years go that said, “Protestant greyhound wins Irish derby”.
Could we have your question, Francie? [Laughter.]
Should you do something in response to Nelson’s concerns, or is that something that might be better left to history?
Mr S Purvis:
It is a thought that we can take away.
Mr K Robinson:
I apologise for arriving late. I was detained by a constituency matter.
I may have missed the general drift of what has been said; however, I want to reinforce a few points. Nelson’s points are widely felt — although not widely perceived — in the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community. We feel that we are not portrayed sufficiently, and that when we are portrayed, we are stereotyped into dim and gloomy Presbyterian-type persons, or some rabid gunman who gets liquored up and goes out and shoots anyone who has a tinge of green about them. That is not doing us any favours.
As a community, we have been engaged in 30 years of damage limitation, and we would like to think that that is over and that we will now be portrayed as a positive group of people — people who were at the forefront of technology, from the Titanic through to the vertical take-off aircraft, Harry Ferguson tractors, the revolution in agriculture, etc. All of those fairly obvious points where the unionist community could have been portrayed as being positive seem to have been missed.
The difficulty is that we assimilate easily to the communities we immigrate into. I have just come back from the Ulster-Scots area of America, and it is amazing how quickly those people have integrated into that community. Tell me of the Ulster-Scots quarter in Liverpool, Birmingham, London or Glasgow? There are no such areas. Our people assimilate into the mainstream of the nation and, as a result, we lose our identity on the mainland. Perhaps you might look at that aspect, along with what you portray of the folk who are left in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister has made a big point about the nation, and that it should be more cohesive. Surely this is an opportunity for you to do that. A practical example is the midnight news. When I turn on the local news at 11.55 pm, I hear all the interesting things that are happening in Northern Ireland, and I wait to hear what is happening in the rest of the nation. However, instead I get some form of music, so I switch off. The cohesiveness of the nation, and what is going on in other parts of the nation, is of interest to me, and I am sure that what is happening here would be of interest to the people living in Scotland, and so forth.
To be facetious for a moment, I was watching repeats of Rab C Nesbitt programmes last night, and I noticed that there were no English subtitles for those living south of Carlisle, so you may need to address that issue as well.
If local broadcasters want traditional Irish musicians, they can go to people such as Francie Brolly, and he can give them a dozen names — or they will probably know the names of traditional Irish flautists or other traditional musicians themselves. However, if they were asked to find a Lambeg drummer they would be stuck, and they would not know where to go. I have raised that issue with local broadcasters over the years. There is a gap in engagement between the media generally and our community.
However, when local broadcasters show our community, for example, the Twelfth of July programmes when everybody want to see themselves, or wee Jimmy or wee Sammy on the television, a news line will be running through the programme — usually a political strap that has nothing to do with that particular day. The Twelfth of July programme lasts for about half an hour and its viewing rating is one of the highest for local programmes. Nevertheless, even that programme is skewed. A wee “ah but”, or some sourness always creeps into the reporting of that programme. When can we get over that psychological barrier? We are part of the nation, and we have contributed not only to what is happening on this island but to what is happening on the adjoining islands and the rest of the world. When will we be portrayed positively, and when will research be carried out into things that we have achieved and that have made a difference to people’s lives?
Mr S Purvis:
I appreciate that there are strong feelings on that issue, and I encourage the Committee to put them in writing for our review. That is what it is for.
Our role is as regulators — we are not programme commissioners. We oversee broadcasting, and Parliament asked us to do that in a way that was less interventionist than the previous versions. Previously, there were rights to intervene before programmes were broadcast and all sorts of other rights. Parliament decided that we should review programmes after broadcast. We would also give the licensees, as we call them, more rights in making creative decisions than we, as regulators, have. I encourage you to put your views, not only to us, but to the people who make the creative decisions — the broadcasters.
That is not to say that, in trying to represent the views of the citizens and consumers of the UK, we should not take account of whether there is a confluence of views on this point of putting that forward, but we would be nervous of intervening in what might be deemed the creative decisions. Where there are constituencies within the UK which have a grievance however, we are here to hear that grievance. What we can do about it is another matter altogether.
To give an example of the situation — the BBC in Northern Ireland commissioned a special series called ‘The Flight of the Earls’, to commemorate the 400 th anniversary of 1607. The Hamilton and Montgomery settlement of Antrim and Down took place in 1606, and that was the birth of the Ulster Scots. People from the Ulster-Scots community had to knock on the door of the BBC and tell them it had happened, because nobody in the BBC knew anything about it.
We have had several decades of discrimination in regional diversity in public service broadcasting. I hasten to add that it is starting to change, and I welcome that. There is a growing engagement with the BBC in Northern Ireland that was not there in previous regimes.
I have one question about something Dennis said. He mentioned that Scots and Ulster Scots were treated by the BBC as part of the continuum. That is certainly true in the case of the Scots —people like Billy Kay, Robbie Shepherd and so on are regular broadcasters. That has not been the case with Ulster Scots — it has not been treated as part of a continuum. It has been subjected by some people at the BBC to abuse and ridicule which was culturally sectarian.
My view is that within the BBC in Northern Ireland, if the vision for Northern Ireland is a shared future based on equality, diversity and interdependence — which is the vision of Government, and all political parties have signed up to it — then the Irish language and the Ulster-Scots language, as the two indigenous minority languages, should be treated on a basis of fairness. If there is to be an Irish Language Broadcasting Fund, or any special funding from London, then there must be an equitable allocation to Ulster-Scots language broadcasting, particularly if the UK government is to meet its obligations under the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In a few years, Ulster Scots will have reached Part III alongside Irish, and will have to be given fair treatment —the differential between Part II and Part III cannot be used to justify any inequality.
If any additional funding is brought in from any source — whether it be from here or something, more similar to Scotland and Wales, that arrives courtesy of Gordon Brown and his Treasury folk —there should be an equivalent, parallel fund for the other indigenous minority language.
Earlier, mention was made of a Library research paper on devolved broadcasting. There was a reference in it that I did not understand. Perhaps you could clarify it for me. It was stated that a new Irish Language Broadcast Fund had been established which also provides services in Ulster Scots. Are you aware of any funding from the Irish Language Broadcast Fund for Ulster Scots?
I thought I was imagining things or that I had missed out on something.
Thank you very much, Nelson. We will have to conclude.
Mr K Robinson:
I will be as succinct as I always am — you know that. Given the plurality of the situation here and the fact that RTÉ actually provides other programmes that are widely available, is there not an onus on the BBC and UTV to redress that balance?
One community here benefits much more from RTÉ’s broadcasting output and interest programmes than does the other community. Is there not an onus on the BBC and UTV to provide a counterbalance to that?
Mr S Purvis:
That is essentially a political issue.
Mr K Robinson:
No it is not, it is a factual issue. I tune in to those stations quite a lot, you get some good films on TnaG — it is brilliant. However, they portray a certain approach that, obviously, gives a slight advantage to one side of the community. Surely there is an onus for the national broadcasting stations — ITV, BBC — to redress that? It is an equality issue.
When you talked about tuning into the nation earlier I thought you were tuning in to RTÉ.
Mr K Robinson:
I watch for you on RTÉ all the time, Barry, and I am disappointed when I do not see you.
Could we have your final comment, and please try to deal with Ken’s issues if you wish.
Mr S Purvis:
We oversee — subject to the powers of the BBC trust and ITV — the services provided to the citizens and consumers in Northern Ireland. In the case of RTÉ, we do not oversee that organisation, but there are overspills from other jurisdictions and from other countries. If we were to take account of those — for instance in England — how would we offset the growth of American television material into the UK?
Mr K Robinson:
I was going to ask what you were doing to help those people who speak French; I have to take up their cause next.
Mr S Purvis:
I expect that you will move on to the Polish people as well?
Thank you very much Stewart and Denis. Tomorrow Nelson, Francie and our Committee Clerk Linda will attend your conference and will report back to us next week. Good luck with that.