Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 20 November 2008

Review of Public-Service Broadcasting

20 November 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Ms Meadhbh McCann ) Research and Library Services
Mr Adam Higgitt ) Ofcom
Mr Denis Wolinski )
Mr Richard Williams ) Northern Ireland Screen
Mr Luke Crawley ) Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union
Ms Mary Curry ) National Union of Journalists
Mr Séamus Dooley ) National Union of Journalists
Mr Patrick Styles ) Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union
Mr Michael Wilson ) UTV

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):

I draw members’ attention to two research papers that address issues in respect of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and the current Ofcom consultation. In the interests of providing the Committee with a broader picture, the Committee Clerk has also asked for papers on how broadcasting is dealt with in Wales and in the South of Ireland. I invite Ms Meadhbh McCann from Research and Library Services to brief members on the papers.

Ms Meadhbh McCann (Research and Library Services):

My paper provides information on the remit and objectives of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, and the timescales in respect of its work. Following that, I will focus on the consultation documents produced by Ofcom, including phase 1: “The digital opportunity”; and phase 2: “Preparing for the digital future”. The presentation is a summary of the key issues contained in those documents.

The First Minister of Scotland announced the creation of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission to define a strategic way forward for television production and broadcasting. The remit of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission was:

“to conduct an independent investigation into the current state of television production and broadcasting in Scotland and define a strategic way forward for the industry.”

The commission took account of the economic, cultural and democratic importance of broadcasting in Scotland. It was set up to:

“make recommendations for Scottish government action in those areas that lie within the scope of the powers currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament; focus attention on issues where other organisations have responsibility and encourage action to address these issues; identify matters for further consideration and debate in the Scottish Parliament”.

Members of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission include a former director of broadcasting at the Scottish Television, who was also head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland; an award-winning playwright; a former BBC national governor and chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland; a life peer, who is also a member of the Privy Council; and a director of Glasgow School of Art.

I will now focus on the consultation documents produced by Ofcom. Parliament requires Ofcom to conduct a review of public-service broadcasting once every five years. Ofcom’s research shows that the total implicit funding for commercial public-service broadcasting has declined by a quarter — approximately £130 million since the Communications Act 2003. Ofcom also estimates that the annual funding for UK children’s programming among the five main public-service broadcasters has declined by around £51 million since 2003.

Research conducted by Ofcom also shows that the audience share of the main five channels fell by 17% between 2003 and 2007.

The two main findings from ‘Ofcom’s Second Public Service Broadcasting Review — Phase 1: The digital opportunity’, were that audiences expect more from the five main channels in relation to programming from the UK nations and regions and UK children’s content, and that provision for UK nations and regions and children’s programming is relatively secure on the part of the BBC but not commercial broadcasters. Phase 1 states that the broadcasting and political needs differ between UK nations. The cost of producing multiple different editions of a single time slot makes regional news the highest public-service cost for the ITV1 licence.

‘Phase 2: Preparing for the digital future’, is an analysis of audience’s attitudes. Ofcom states that the current level of provision will not be sustained by ITV1 and Channel 4 across a range of genres. Indeed, Ofcom predicts that the value of the ITV1 licence will fall below the cost of its current obligations before 2012, and that Channel 4 will need additional funding of approximately £60 million to £100 million by 2012.

Ofcom says that it is likely that replacement funding will be required for nations and regions services, and particularly for news services. Public funding of between £330 million and £420 million is likely to be required by 2012 in addition to core licence fees. Ofcom states that any new model funding should be transparent, proportionate and independently scrutinised.

I will now move on to the issue of news in the devolved regions. According to research that was carried out by Ofcom, and which describes the situation in Northern Ireland, UTV appears to be financially robust through to the digital switch-over. There is evidence of healthy press and radio sectors, and a widespread availability of media in respect of the Republic of Ireland. Secure and widespread distribution has to be obtained in Northern Ireland for TG4 and RTÉ. Funding must be secured for indigenous language productions.

Under proposals for commercial public-service broadcasting obligations from 2009, Ofcom is required to decide what obligations the commercially funded public-service broadcaster should have. Those proposals seek to ensure that audiences’ priorities for UK programmes, UK news, and national and regional news are served. Therefore, Ofcom seeks views on the following proposals for ITV1: retained national and regional news, with the removal of some daytime bulletins; a reduced minimum requirement for national and regional non-news programming to 15 minutes in England, and from three to 1·5 hours in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; reduced quotas for out-of-London production to 35%; and reduced network current affairs minimum quota, to 50 minutes a week. Ofcom proposes to introduce a new quota for Channel 4 productions from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from 2010.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Meadhbh.

Mr McNarry:

The annex to your written presentation contains the recommendations of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission. I am not sure when the Commission’s final report will appear — perhaps it will be published some time this year.

In the section of the annex that deals with cultural imperatives, you list key strategic questions, which are linked to the recommendations. What is the appropriate volume and nature of programmes and services to be provided by Scottish broadcasters? Does Scotland have a requirement for public broadcasting which is different from other parts of the UK? Are changes required to the structure and funding of the ITV licensees in Scotland? How has the Scottish Broadcasting Commission answered those questions?

Ms M McCann:

The Scottish Broadcasting Commission divided its report into those headings, and pressed for those questions to be considered further. The report, as a whole, uses those headings as a background for its final recommendations, of which there are 28. That was the commission’s starting point in its considerations, before it made its final recommendations.

Mr McNarry:

Is it fair to say that the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s recommendations have addressed the questions that it posed? Does the Commission’s approach have any consequence, considering the commercial value of domestic content, especially for those countries with which Scotland has close historic and cultural links, such as Northern Ireland? Was the Commission able to significantly tease out the differing roles that Scotland has to play in broadcasting, as apart from the United Kingdom?

Ms M McCann:

First, the questions that were posed under the various headings were reflected in the recommendations of the final report, which focus heavily on the unique situations that pertain in each of the devolved nations, and state that Scotland’s history, and its links with other areas, should be more widely promoted in its commercial sector.

Nevertheless, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission is mindful that its remit is restricted, because the devolved powers do not include broadcasting. There is a limit to what it can actually achieve, but its members are keenly aware of the many different cultural strings that there are, and of the uniqueness of Scotland-focused broadcasting, especially in relation to the generation of income through the creative industries.

Mr McNarry:

Thank you for that; that was very helpful. I know that you cannot express an opinion, but perhaps you will come as close to expressing one as you can. We are contemplating the establishment of a broadcasting commission, the impetus for which has been driven by requests from this Committee. In a professional capacity, in light of what you have seen happening in Scotland, do you think that the establishment of a broadcasting commission for Northern Ireland, following similar lines to that in Scotland, would address the particular needs of Northern Ireland in respect of the provision of a public-service broadcasting network?

The Chairperson:

I am not sure whether that is an appropriate question to ask an official from the Research and Library Service.

Mr McNarry:

I phrased that question so that opinion was sought on a purely professional basis. Meadhbh has diligently compiled this report, so I am simply asking whether she thinks, from a professional viewpoint, that what has been done in Scotland could be done here. She can choose not to answer if she wishes.

Ms M McCann:

Based solely on what I have seen in Scotland — although I am currently considering the Republic of Ireland and Wales — I think that there is benefit in the establishment of a commission, in that it is quite an inclusive process, a lot of stakeholders are invited, and a lot of awareness is generated — although all of the commissions that I have examined have been stand-alone.

Those commissions may have heard over 80 hours of evidence, and perhaps examined 42 submissions. That is quite an onerous task to undertake, and, if a commission were established, a lot of commitment would be needed from its members. It would need to consist of people who are experts in their field. That has been reflected in all of the commissions that I have examined — the members are of very high calibre, including directors of BBC Scotland. If all of those components came together, from my experience, I believe that it could be a worthwhile undertaking.

Mr McNarry:

That is an even better answer than I thought that you might give. Thank you very much.

Mr McCartney:

I was going to ask about the advantages of establishing a broadcasting commission, but Meadhbh has already ably answered that question.

Lord Browne:

The report states that the commission will make recommendations for Scottish Government action in those areas that lie within the scope of the powers currently devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Am I right in saying that those powers are very limited, and that broadcasting is a matter reserved to Westminster? Does the Scottish Parliament have any more powers over broadcasting than, for example, the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Ms M McCann:

As far as I am aware, every devolved nation has the same level of power and scope. The commissions can offer suggestions and encourage debate, but they are very restricted by the powers that have been devolved to them.

The Chairperson:

I thank Meadhbh for her presentation. We will now hear a briefing from Ofcom, and I draw members’ attention to the documentation that has been provided. The team from Ofcom will have 10 minutes to make a presentation, after which I will invite questions from members. The team comprises Mr Denis Wolinski, director of Ofcom Northern Ireland, and Mr Adam Higgitt, director of the chief executive’s office. You are both very welcome.

Mr Denis Wolinski (Ofcom):

I thank the Committee for providing us with the opportunity to discuss our public-service broadcasting review. In the next 10 or 15 minutes, I will present a quick overview of the current situation in respect of the review, and outline what we feel needs to be done in the short term — until digital switch-over in 2012 — and what options exist in the long term for a sustainable future for public-service broadcasting. We are keen to hear the Committee’s views on both the big picture, and the proposals that we have made for the interim period. All members should have a copy of our presentation. We will run through it quickly.

I will first outline the reasons for Ofcom conducting this review. Under the terms of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom is required to conduct a review at least every five years to assess the extent to which all public-service broadcasters fulfil public purposes. The review should also make recommendations on how to strengthen and maintain PSB. The first review was undertaken between 2004 and 2005, and a second public broadcasting review started at the end of 2007, largely because the rate of change in the broadcasting industry has been so rapid.

A regulatory principle under which Ofcom operates is that decisions must be based on evidence and that extensive research should be undertaken. Audience research indicates that audiences continue to support public-service broadcasting and value the services provided by the BBC in particular. However, research also indicates that those audiences want public-service broadcasting alternatives to complement the service provided by the BBC.

In Northern Ireland, 95% of those surveyed said that television was an important source of news about their area. Indeed, television tends to be particularly trusted as a source of news, possibly because it is highly regulated. Furthermore, 93% of respondents indicated that it is important for UTV and BBC Northern Ireland to broadcast news about Northern Ireland.

There used to be enough room on the airwaves only for four to five channels, of which three — ITV1, Channel 4 and Five — were commercial broadcasters. Thus the scarcity value of the analogue spectrum — that is, the airwaves — was limited because only five channels could be broadcast. That meant that the regulator was in a position to make heavy demands on commercial broadcasters in relation to public-service broadcasting obligations. Ofcom could require them to present UK, international and regional news and current affairs for England and the three devolved territories, in addition to a range of other programming, covering such areas as children’s television, religion and the arts

However, that situation is rapidly disappearing. We are moving towards 2012 when the analogue spectrum will be removed. After that spectrum has been removed, we will move fully into the digital world where there are currently up to 40 channels on Freeview and between 300 and 400 channels on Sky and cable television

That change must also be considered within the present challenging economic climate, which, according to ‘The Guardian’, saw 2,300 jobs lost in the media sector in the past week. The fall at ITV, in particular, is very marked. When Ofcom embarked on this review, the company’s share price was 120p; it is now around 30p. Channel 4 is similarly challenged; it is a publicly owned, but commercially funded, broadcaster, and its shortfall, if it is to continue to be a publicly owned public-service broadcaster, will also need to be publicly funded.

Ofcom’s remit is to maintain and strengthen the quality of public-service broadcasting, and its approach is twofold. On the one hand, it needs to consider interim issues up until 2014 — the end date of the current digital replacement licences — and, on the other hand, it needs to examine the long-term issues of finding models to ensure future public-service broadcasting.

The Committee has already heard some of those proposals. Ofcom has proposed that it wants to hold on to the ITV network’s public-broadcasting obligations. Therefore, the original programme quotas will stay the same. Most of that quota is made up of UK original programming, and ITV’s current ownership is committed to retaining that form of programming. However, that might change if ITV were taken over, which is a possibility, given its current share price. Other proposals include: ITV’s UK and international news requirements staying at the same level; peak-time current affairs levels staying the same; and the network’s quota for independent production sector remaining at 25%. Ofcom has decided to allow the network to reduce its out-of-London production quota, because ITV was finding it extremely challenging to meet. Ofcom opted for that quota only three or four years ago.

We also propose that Channel 4 produce 3% of its programmes in the nations, which, before the present phase, it was not required to do. We also propose that that should increase if Channel 4 gets suitable funding.

Five’s original productions, and news and current affairs output, should stay the same; and should have a focus on children’s programming. Children’s programmes have been under particular threat, as has been the case for programmes for the nations and the regions, and have disappeared from ITV1 altogether. In the interim, we propose that channel 3 news programmes across the three devolved nations — Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — should amount to four hours a week. Therefore, the total output of regional news, including the 45 minutes provided by GMTV, would be four hours and 45 minutes, which is similar to that which is offered by the BBC. We propose that the length of regional mid-morning and weekend news bulletins should be reduced but that the prime-time, early-evening news slot of 6.00 pm and the slot after ‘News at Ten’ remain as they are.

Those four hours are stripped across the ITV schedule. In fact, England will get only those four hours, 15 minutes of which will be used for non-news. England, Scotland and Wales will continue to provide non-news broadcasting, including current affairs, at the same level provided presently by UTV, STV and ITV Wales. Those requirements are a floor, not a ceiling. Commercial and operational matters are for the broadcasters, not the regulator. Ofcom is required to examine only the output.

In the current phase, Ofcom has three potential models for the long-term future of public-service broadcasting. In all the models, the BBC will remain central to public-service broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The first model, called “evolution”, endeavours to maintain a role for commercial public-service broadcasters. The second model proposes to increase Channel 4’s role by providing some element of competitive funding. The third model proposes a broad competitive funding model, whereby a range of independent producers and broadcasters pitch for funding from a pot of money for programmes that are then made available to audiences. In the case of Northern Ireland, a channel would need to be able to demonstrate that it can reach a significant number of people.

Mr McNarry:

How many people must the channel reach?

Mr Wolinski:

It is only a proposal, so we do not have any —

Mr McNarry:

What is the number? It is a proposal.

Mr Wolinski:

We have not put a figure on that; it may be in the region of 70%. However, that will be across a range of platforms, such as television and radio. We are trying to find a model that will suit the world post-2014; therefore, we are examining all providers of public-service content, including the Internet, as well as radio and television.

Mr Adam Higgitt (Ofcom):

That content cannot be parked on niche channels and services where it will not be seen. Those programmes must have reach and impact. At present, we cannot know what that feels like. The industry is a rapidly evolving marketplace, so it is probably not sensible to put a figure on that at this point.

Mr McNarry:

So you cannot say what the impact might be?

Mr Higgitt:

We know what reach and impact feel like, and we know that, at present, channel 3 delivers reach and impact. We will seek platforms and services that deliver similar levels of reach and impact.

Mr Wolinski:

For example, channel 3 reaches 98·5% of homes across the UK, as does Channel 4. Five does not reach as many homes, but it will after digital switch-over. Those channels reach into homes, although people do not necessarily watch them. Channel 3’s audience share has declined over the past few years. Percentage-wise, its audience share is in the low 20s. Its share used to be between 35% and 40%. Channel 4 has an 8% to 10% share in Northern Ireland, but it is lower for Five. We are looking for platforms that most people would be able to access. As we move forward into a more digital world, broadband may also be an appropriate vehicle for the delivery of public-service content.

Mr McNarry:

I am sorry for interrupting. I was curious about the idea of a lottery without any significant figures attached to it.

Mr Wolinski:

Did my response answer your question?

Mr McNarry:

Yes; it is worth considering what you said.

Mr Wolinski:

There are a variety of funding options, on which I can provide further detail when members ask their questions. Regulatory assets include the cost of spectrum for being on the electronic programme guide and the amount of advertising time.

Direct funding comes from HM Treasury and is possibly the most transparent approach and has a precedent — S4C and the BBC World Service are funded in that way. There is a possibility of using some of the licence fee, because it exists for public-service broadcasting. However, Ofcom is not in favour of any outcome that cuts the BBC’s core services. There has been a suggestion that the switch-over surplus, which is money that the BBC uses for switch-over, might be used. There are other schemes that place levies on the industry.

There are particular issues for Northern Ireland, which I will not explain in great detail. Northern Ireland has the lowest level of production and portrayal on the networks; it is rare to see Northern Ireland on the main UK networks. Plurality is a particular concern and is something that Northern Ireland benefits from more than other parts of the UK: there are three daily newspapers, a variety of radio stations and people in Northern Ireland can access broadcasting and other media from across the border. Indigenous language minority programming is another important part of the UK’s public-service broadcasting landscape.

Ofcom regards the BBC as core to public-service broadcasting. We are determined to maintain plurality. Television will be an important platform, but it may not be the only way to deliver content, as was discussed earlier. The position of the devolved territories is particularly important. Regardless of whether we recommend institutional or competitive funding, when we have submitted out proposals, it will be for the Government and — subsequently — Parliament to decide on a way forward.

Mr McCausland:

I want to ask about minority-language programming, which you did not address. From attending a conference in 2002, Denis will be familiar with the aspirations of the Ulster-Scots community, and Adam also has some knowledge of that from a previous incarnation.

Page 12 of your submission states that there are:

“Formal obligations regarding Irish (and Welsh and Scottish Gaelic) arising from both the European Charter for Minority Languages and existing UK legislation.”

It is stated in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages that the Government — and, consequently, all areas under Government control, including broadcasting — must take “resolute action” to promote Ulster Scots. Does that constitute a formal obligation?

Mr Wolinski:

There are three levels in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages .

Mr McCausland:

I am very familiar with the charter. Is part II of the charter not a formal obligation?

Mr Wolinski:

There are no formal obligations for broadcasting under part II status within the charter.

Mr McCausland:

Does the statement that you “must take resolute action” not qualify as an obligation? If you “must” do something, you are obliged to it. That is my understanding of the English language.

Mr Wolinski:

Broadcasting is not mentioned.

Mr McCausland:

It is a general obligation, which covers areas such as education and broadcasting among many others. Is that not a formal obligation?

Mr Wolinski:

I suppose that it is.

Mr McCausland:

If you acknowledge that it is a formal obligation, why did you not include Ulster Scots but did select to include the other minority language?

Mr Wolinski:

Because one language has part III status and the other has part II status.

Mr McCausland:

That is not a justification. Why did you ignore the formal obligation?

Mr Wolinski:

We did not ignore it.

Mr McCausland:

You did if you did not include Ulster Scots.

Moving on from that, now that we have acknowledged and recognised that Ofcom treated Irish and Ulster Scots differently, let us consider the public-service broadcasting report, which states on page 85:

“Ofcom’s advisory committee believes that coverage of Ulster-Scots cultural activities should be acknowledged as Ulster-Scots content.”

That extract is from a section on minority-language broadcasting. Therefore, cultural content is counted as meeting a language obligation. Is that the case?

Mr Wolinski:

No; the report reflects the meetings that we have had with Ulster-Scots groups, at which we have been told over and over again —

Mr McCausland:

What view did the chairperson of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council express?

Mr Wolinski:

He said that content was important as well as language.

Mr McCausland:

What view did the chairperson of the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council and the chairperson of the Ulster-Scots Agency express?

Mr Wolinski:

They said that culture was as important —

Mr McCausland:

Did they say —

The Chairperson:

If you pose a question, you must allow him to answer it.

Mr McCausland:

I would prefer him to answer the question rather than skirt around it. Will you count broadcasting of Gaelic football as part of Irish-language broadcasting?

Mr Wolinski:

Those are not matters for Ofcom; we do not count the amount of coverage that is given to Ulster Scots or to the Irish language. We do not set quotas, and there are no requirements for Irish-language or Ulster-Scots broadcasting. There are only general requirements. Ofcom’s report simply reflects what various groups have told us. Ulster-Scots groups said that it is as important for them for cultural activities to be broadcast as it is for language to be broadcast, and the document reflects that.

Mr McCausland:

Does your document also reflect the fact that most Irish-language speakers have an interest in Gaelic football?

Mr Wolinski:

That point of view was not put to us.

Mr McCausland:

The reason for that is because Gaelic football is already provided for.

The Chairperson:

I cannot allow this inquisition to continue. I must ask you to frame a question.

Mr McCausland:

An inquisition involves the asking of questions.

The Chairperson:

There are 11 members of the Committee, and a further 10 minutes have been allocated to this part of the evidence session. Will you please ask one more question, Nelson?

Mr McCausland:

I have a statement, not a question, because I am not getting answers to my questions. I simply highlight the fact that the document enters into an area that is discriminatory. I pointed that out when I met Ofcom previously. Mark Thompson, the chairperson of the Ulster-Scots Agency, also expressed the concern that, when cultural content is counted to meet language obligation, it affirms identity just as language affirms identity. Gaelic football also affirms identity, but that does not count as Irish-language broadcasting.

Mr Shannon:

My questions will be much softer. I was tempted to give Nelson my 10 minutes to ask questions, because he was doing so well.

Mr McNarry:

Your questions will be softer because you are sitting on the wrong side of the table.

Mr Shannon:

I am over here to influence these boys. [Laughter.]

I am concerned that the system that you are setting up is unfair in that you propose to reduce UTV’s current affairs output from five hours and 20 minutes to four hours. You also propose to reduce non-news programming from three hours to one and a half hours. We all have correspondence on the fact that the BBC is telling its regions of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that it will consider an increase of 40% in their programming. The fact that we all pay for a TV licence gives the BBC a head start. Why are you proposing to reduce the output of UTV at a time when its competitor, the BBC, is proposing an increase in local output?

Mr Wolinksi:

The answer to that involves three aspects. First, the BBC is funded by a licence fee, which amounts to £3·2 billion. That amount will not decrease, whereas the value of the commercial sector is going down. Therefore, we are simply taking commercial realities into account.

Secondly, news is particularly important for plurality; the news allocation, which totals four hours and 45 minutes and is stripped across the ITV schedule, is the same for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is extremely difficult to have different news times in different parts of the UK. If the news is slightly longer, that will cause the whole schedule to go back and will affect the schedule for the next news; therefore, it is not practical to have different levels of news.

Thirdly — and this is backed up by our research — people are particularly concerned about having alternative views in the reporting of news and current affairs. We have not reduced the quota for current affairs, for instance. However, non-news programmes such as ‘Lesser Spotted Ulster’ or ‘Ultimate Ulster’ are not considered to be contentious and are not seen as needing plurality or alternative views, whereas it is important that there is a plurality of sources for news and current affairs programmes.

Mr Higgitt:

The basic proposition is that the value that UTV gets from being a public-service broadcaster is far less than it was. We must try to keep its public-service broadcasting obligations in balance with the value that it gets out of being a public-service broadcaster. Unfortunately, as audiences fragment across hundreds of digital channels and the online world, that means that we must reduce UTV’s level of obligation.

Mr Shannon:

As Denis mentioned, ‘Lesser Spotted Ulster’ is one of the success stories. However, if the new system is introduced, whereby the quota of non-news programmes is reduced from three hours to one and a half hours, it is quite possible that were ‘Lesser Spotted Ulster’ being introduced now, it would never get a chance to be successful. Therefore, I feel that, by reducing the hours, you are reducing the opportunity to have successful programmes come through the system.

Mr P Ramsey:

It is understandable that, for many people, the issue has become quite sensitive. There is a general perception that the quality of current affairs programming will be diminished as a result of Ofcom kick-starting a process that has enabled UTV to come in with a prepared plan of redundancies, which we understand will be upwards of 35.

Was it your intention when making the plans that we would lose ‘Insight’ on UTV, for example? One might suspect that UTV is using the situation created by your draft proposals to argue that, now that there is peace in Northern Ireland, there is no need for a half-hour current affairs programme and that 15 minutes and a couple of wee stories will be grand. There is a perception among the wider community that that is happening now, and the concern is that the branding, the quality of the programmes and the staff, and the capacity of the station — all of which have taken years to develop — will be lost because of the proposals.

Mr Higgitt:

It is important to recognise that we are not proposing to cut the number of hours that UTV shows content that was produced here; we are proposing to reduce the quota. If UTV wants to go over quota and continue to show the sort of programmes mentioned by Committee members — particularly in light of the fact that there could be more coverage of the devolved legislature here — that is a decision for UTV, as a brand and a channel, to make. We are merely stating what the floor should be.

Mr P Ramsey:

I understand; but can you appreciate that, as a result of Ofcom recommending that UTV should be allowed to reduce the number of hours that it must show content that was produced here, there will now be wholesale redundancies in the current affairs programmes?

Mr Wolinski:

The requirement for current affairs has not reduced at all. I must make it clear that these are proposals, and the Committee — either as a Committee or as individual members — can respond to the consultation. That consultation will continue until 4 December, and we will take account of the responses that we receive.

It is not for the regulator to say how a broadcaster meets its requirement, and it is not for us to tell broadcasters that they should make this programme or that programme: we are not broadcasters. The way in which programmes are delivered, whether on the BBC, UTV or any other station, changes all the time. UTV is required to deliver 26 minutes of current affairs a week. How that is delivered is a matter for UTV. There is more that one way to skin a cat.

Mr D Bradley:

Considering the fact that your proposals are currently in the public domain for consultation, and that the consultation period does not end until spring 2009, surely it makes a mockery of —

Mr Wolinski:

The consultation period ends on 4 December. The entire review will end in 2009.

Mr D Bradley:

That does not take away from the point that I am making, which is that, given the fact that we are still in the consultation period, does it not make a mockery of that whole process if broadcasters are already making their own decisions and are reducing staff, current affairs and local programming? What is the point in your consulting on these matters when people are pre-empting the outcome of your report?

Mr Wolinski:

That is something that you would need to ask UTV. As Adam said earlier, Ofcom is required to regulate the output. How broadcasters achieve that output is a matter for them, and it would not be appropriate if we were to —

Mr D Bradley:

If broadcasters are already acting before your firm proposals come out, that makes a mockery of your role in the process.

Mr Higgitt:

We have made it clear to all broadcasters that any move that they make towards redundancies — be it consultations or actual redundancies — during the consultation period are made entirely at their own risk.

Mr D Bradley:

What does that mean, “entirely at their own risk”?

Mr Higgitt:

It means simply that: at the end of this process, UTV will be required to produce a high-quality news service and non-news content for the people of Northern Ireland. It will need to have the right number of people to do that. Ofcom cannot mandate what that number of people is; we are not remitted to do so, and it would not be in anyone’s interest for us to micromanage that business. If UTV management reduces its headcount beyond the point where those requirements can be met, on their own heads be it; that is their lookout. UTV’s decision to press ahead with this process is entirely of its own volition.

Mr Wolinski:

May I reiterate that these are proposals; they are not necessarily final requirements.

Mr D Bradley:

That underlines the point that I am making.

Mr Wolinski:

I think that you have made the point very well.

The Chairperson:

We need to move on. I hope that I am not offending members if I ask them to double up on their questions. Therefore, Raymond McCartney and David McNarry will ask their questions in sequence, as will Francie Brolly and Pat Ramsey. Will the witnesses please give composite answers?

Mr McCartney:

In the report, what allowance do you give for the uniqueness of the North? Was the analysis conducted by viewing the North as a part of something else? I ask because comparisons have been made between the services offered by UTV and by Tyne Tees. That is not comparing like with like.

Mr McNarry:

I understand the pressure that you are under Chairperson, but, with all due respect, I do not want us to put pressure on ourselves as members.

The Chairperson:

The meeting could go on until 3.00 pm or 4.00 pm.

Mr McNarry:

This is a major issue, as all our issues are, and we seem to cram these things. Perhaps you might give some latitude.

Can our guests tell us what weight they put on public opinion?

I am interested to know how you reached that conclusion. Although I am not making accusations, outcomes sometimes suggest that you are following instructions. Does the public consider the BBC the cornerstone of public-service broadcasting in Northern Ireland? Given that the public is now aware of the potential impact of the recommendations, which, as colleagues said, could affect UTV, do you intend to seek public opinion again? In light of your report, will you seek opinion on a proposed reduction in UTV’s public-service broadcasting?

I understand that, nationally, the BBC is the cornerstone of public-service broadcasting. However, politicians in Northern Ireland are aware of the comparison between UTV and BBC viewing figures for news and non-news programmes — on which we sometimes appear. UTV dominates that field in Northern Ireland. Therefore, I am rather intrigued by how that ties in with public opinion. Have you given enough weight to public opinion in Northern Ireland?

Mr Wolinski:

We accept that UTV is different to Tyne Tees, and, when we compare broadcasting regulation in the UK, we compare UTV with Scotland and Wales, rather than the English regions. Under the proposals, four hours will be stripped across the schedule in the English regions, 15 minutes of which will be non-news programmes. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, an hour and a half of non-news programming will remain. As I said earlier, Ofcom is an evidence-based regulator that undertakes a great deal of research. UK research — including Northern Ireland — indicates that the public values highly the BBC’s contribution to public-service broadcasting.

Mr McNarry:

I do not dispute that. Do you have a breakdown of the weight that people in Northern Ireland place on the BBC as the cornerstone of public-service broadcasting? I challenge that assertion. I do not think that that is the case in Northern Ireland.

Mr Wolinski:

You are correct; the figures — particularly for news — show that UTV is ahead of BBC Northern Ireland. That is partly due to scheduling, because UTV’s news programme is broadcast before the BBC’s, and people in Northern Ireland, traditionally, want to hear Northern Ireland news before the UK news.

Mr McNarry:

I do not need you to explain that. National news timings have chopped and changed from 9.00 pm to 10.00 pm, etc, because scheduling interrupts programmes. I want you to answer my questions.

Mr Higgitt:

Our research indicates that the value that Northern Ireland audiences place on the BBC goes far beyond news. The BBC provides a huge range of TV, radio and online content that fulfils public purposes across a wide range of genres. Commercial broadcasting, frankly, is no longer supplying volume in many of those genres. I could refer specifically to children’s television, where the BBC has, more or less, a monopoly.

Mr McNarry:

I am not knocking the BBC — the problem is not with the BBC. I am interested in public opinion. As a public representative, the number of calls and emails that I have received on this issue has surpassed any other, so great is the level of public concern about public-service broadcasting. The weight of opinion in Northern Ireland — and what you have just told me — does not match up to what is in the report. The report does not separate Northern Ireland from other regions. I am glad that you have acknowledged that separate nature. Now that you are aware of the weight of public opinion, how much leeway will you give to the public when you respond to the impact of their views?

The Chairperson:

Before the witness answers, I will allow Mr McCartney and Mr Robinson to ask supplementary questions.

Mr McCartney:

I was not suggesting that you compare UTV with Tyne Tees. However, if someone were to present a case using Tyne Tees as a model for UTV, would you say that that case was based on a false premise?

Mr K Robinson:

I refer to page 78, paragraph 5.49 of the phase 2 consultation document. Can you explain and expand on that paragraph and its implications?

Mr Wolinski:

We do not have a copy with us.

Mr Higgitt:

We do now.

Mr McNarry:

I would have thought that you would have known it off by heart, Denis.

The Chairperson:

Apart from that, Denis, are you keeping well? [Laughter.]

Mr Wolinski:

Well, I was until I came here. [Laughter.]

If I may return to the first question — we carry out research, and we are currently undertaking consultation. We have had very few responses from the public on the document to date. Members might have had many responses, but we have not had very many at all.

Mr McNarry:

Are you willing to change your views if public opinion provides new information?

Mr Wolinski:

We will take public opinion into account.

Mr McNarry:

It is a consultation document. Are you open to change? Surely that is the purpose of consultation?

Mr Wolinski:

Of course we are.

You asked earlier about whether we were under instruction, and I must respond to that question. We are an independent regulatory body. We have endeavoured to point out that, in the commercial world, the model of public-service broadcasting is broken. Although we have made some short-term, interim proposals, the bulk of the document is about what we will, or must, do in future to maintain and strengthen public-service broadcasting. As the regulator, we are not here to stand over the funeral of public-service broadcasting in the commercial sector or in the UK; we want to maintain and strengthen it. We have put forward a range of proposals, and I ask members to look at them and to respond.

Mr McNarry:

Will you extend the time available to the Committee? We have asked for an extension, because we need time to deliberate the matter. Will you let us go beyond 4 December?

Mr Higgitt:

At the risk of sounding slightly presumptuous, you are probably the only respondents so far who have asked us to slow down our review of public-service broadcasting. Everyone else to whom we have spoken so far recognises that the situation requires urgent solutions. The situation is developing even faster than we thought that it would when we began the review. ITV’s advertising revenue is declining rapidly, and we must move forward very quickly with solutions that, at least, stabilise the provision on channel 3. Putting the review’s conclusions back is unrealistic.

Mr McNarry:

I appreciate that. We are asking only for a few days.

The Chairperson:

Have you addressed Ken’s question?

Mr Wolinski:

If ITV ceases to be a public-service broadcaster, UTV will effectively have no network in which to sprinkle the nine hours of its own content that it will produce each week. This is a discussion about what UTV and Ofcom can do to ensure that UTV’s content will have the reach and impact that it has as part of the network schedule.

Mr K Robinson:

Your brief is to examine broadcasting within the United Kingdom. Does it not go outside your brief to suggest that we consider broadcasting without the United Kingdom?

Mr Wolinski:

We are merely recognising reality. UTV has been able to maintain a stronger financial position than other broadcasters. The first reason for that is that its contributions to the network schedule have been fixed against the retail price index while its advertising revenue increased. That advertising revenue has increased less recently because of the different economic environment. The second reason is that UTV has been able to monetise its audience across the border. It would be naive for us not to recognise that.

Mr K Robinson:

I am not concerned about your naivety in not recognising facts. I am concerned that UTV reflects the community in Northern Ireland. You referred to a plurality of provision here, but that provision tends to favour one community. Broadcasters may not set out to favour one community, but one community is portrayed more often and more positively than the other.

Mr Wolinski:

I am not aware of any evidence of that.

Mr K Robinson:

I have waited a long time to speak, and I have listened carefully to what you have said. I am flagging up my concern that the goods will be handed over completely if we go down a certain road. I appreciate the economic realities of what UTV has to do and how successful it has been in doing that; no one is complaining about that. However, I am concerned that UTV’s future content could be skewed by the income sources coming in to sustain it, and that one community — which already has the advantage of RTÉ — would have another cultural string to its bow through the new network.

Mr Wolinski:

There seems to be a misconception. There are several possibilities for UTV to find another schedule. It could find a schedule with Channel 4 or Five, or with a commercial broadcaster such as Sky. UTV could also find a schedule with TV3, the South’s commercial broadcaster. Some 70% of TV3’s schedule comes from ITV. Therefore, the schedule would not be that different. The discussion is about some type of commercial arrangement under which UTV may be able to continue to deliver Northern Ireland content.

Mr K Robinson:

He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Mr Brolly:

When considering the provision of broadcasting here, do you take into account the fact that we are pretty well served by RTÉ One, RTÉ Two and TG4? If UTV default on the proposal that you come up with, will you have any power to do anything about that? People are concerned that competition will be reduced if UTV’s provision is minimised. That may allow BBC to cut back as well. Indeed, the BBC broadcasts its local news programme half an hour later than UTV, which seems to suggest that the BBC do not care whether people watch it or not. As Denis said, people like to watch local news first.

Mr P Ramsey:

On a more positive note, Denis, on page 7 of the consultation document, you refer to raising the quota of out-of-London productions, specifically from Channel 4, and you quantify a target of 35% of programming from 2010. As part of the Programme for Government, the output of the creative industries is hugely important to the region, so will you provide more detail about that target?

More local programming would stimulate much growth in the creative industries, and we need only look at how TG4 has created jobs for the Galway region for evidence of that. You state that the three devolved regions collectively should account for 35% of productions. Will you quantify, as a percentage, your aims and objectives for Northern Ireland? What do you propose to do to protect existing broadcasting jobs in Northern Ireland?

Mr Wolinski:

We do not regulate any services other than those that are based in the United Kingdom. It would be naive of us not to recognise that channels such as RTÉ One, RTÉ Two and TG4 are available in Northern Ireland, and that people watch them.

Ofcom can apply a wide range of sanctions — from fines to the removal of a licence — on broadcasters that are in breach of the conditions of their licence or who fail to comply.

I was asked about the competition to the BBC. I am concerned that we have not managed to get across the seriousness of commercial broadcasting’s situation. Commercial broadcasting in the United Kingdom is in huge decline, and the regulator cannot simply turn round and say: “Do this, or else”. At one time, we could have done so, but ITV has openly stated that it is prepared to hand back its licence and become a broadcaster similar to Sky One or the Discovery Channel, and, should that happen, UTV would have no schedule. We can talk now about four hours, one and a half hours or 26 minutes of programming, but there would be none.

There is an idea that Ofcom, as the regulator, is somehow endeavouring to ensure less public-service broadcasting for people in the UK, and Northern Ireland in particular — but nothing could be further from the truth. I am concerned that we are not getting that message across.

Channel 4 is commercially funded. We have pointed out that Channel 4’s model is broken. Its deficit will be in the region of between £60 million and £100 million. Therefore, there must be some type of public funding. If there is public funding, we will demand of Channel 4 that it provide more programmes from the three nations. We have already proposed a figure of 3%, which is a low level, to start with. However, when Channel 4 receives public funding, it will become much easier for the regulator to make demands on how much work it does in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:

Denis and Adam, thank you for your presentation; members were highly engaged in the session.

Mr McCausland:

Mr McNarry made a point about late responses. Can we seek clarification on whether a response that arrives a few days late will be accepted?

Mr Wolinski:

I will get back to you on that.

The Chairperson:

Will you write to us?

Mr Wolinski:

I certainly will.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Denis and Adam.

Mr Wolinski:

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to the Committee.

The Chairperson:

We will now receive a briefing from Northern Ireland Screen. Mr Richard Williams, the chief executive, will brief the Committee for approximately 10 minutes, after which members will put questions.

Mr Richard Williams ( Northern Ireland Screen):

I will make one holistic point in relation to the future of public-service broadcasting. It goes much wider than Ofcom’s present consultation, and it has its backstop in legislation that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) proposes to have drafted and ready in the early spring, which is the key deadline for influencing the future of public-service broadcasting.

I am slightly concerned that the breadth of the opportunity and the threat that is attached to public-service broadcasting is not being fully realised. It has been very well documented that UTV has already announced job cuts, so the duopoly of local news coverage is under threat.

Public-service broadcasting delivers much more than that, and there are three elements that I want to bring to the Committee’s attention. In the past, Northern Ireland has been served well by only one aspect of public-service broadcasting — local news and programming. As far as indigenous languages — Irish and Ulster Scots — are concerned, public-service broadcasting has served Northern Ireland very poorly in the past. The Committee will be aware of the Irish Language Broadcast Fund. That does not compare particularly favourably to the much-better funded programmes in Scotland and Wales. I also suspect that the Committee will be aware that Ulster Scots does not currently have any funding attached to it, which — even more so than the Irish language — compares extremely badly to anywhere else.

I want to draw most emphasis to the fact that Northern Ireland has been abysmally served by public-service broadcasting in relation to what the industry generally calls network production and portrayal. That has a job-creation aspect. Earlier, I heard brief mention of the creative industries. Network production is absolutely crucial because it is the central anchor of developing the creative industries. I suspect that all members of the Committee would struggle to think of any examples of Northern Ireland being portrayed on any of the UK network channels in any area other than news and current affairs.

BBC Northern Ireland and UTV have served us very well in respect of local news and regional programming. However, we have been very badly served in relation to indigenous languages and network production and portrayal. I urge that those aspects be considered within this debate, because they present opportunities.

I draw members’ attention to what has been going on in Scotland. The Scottish Broadcasting Commission was set up approximately one year ago. That commission has already done Northern Ireland and Wales a great service because it put tremendous pressure on the BBC on the issue of network production and portrayal. The BBC gave very strong commitments that that will become a reality in due course.

The commission also put tremendous pressure on Ofcom and Westminster on the issue of production and portrayal for Scotland. I had the opportunity to listen to the Ofcom submissions. I endorse some of the contents of those, particularly in relation to the future of ITV. It is genuinely possible that ITV will walk away from public-service broadcasting. That is not an idle threat — it is a real possibility.

Michael Grade could not be any more dismissive. Even in fairly confrontational situations, such as when he addressed the Welsh Assembly and, indeed, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, he remained clear on that point.

UTV is an extremely fine organisation. It has a long and admirable tradition of delivering much for its audience. As it has been mentioned, UTV is, quite rightly, the leading news provider in Northern Ireland. However, it has a serious problem: its future as a television broadcaster is not within its own gift. As Northern Ireland’s only public limited company, it has been well aware of that for a long time. That is why it now has a large radio portfolio and has been fairly aggressive in moving into digital and interactive content. I am not saying that UTV believes that there is no future in television; it has, however, been aware that its relationship with ITV is fraught.

I submit, therefore, that it would be dangerous for Northern Ireland to plump for a solution that is entirely about shoring up UTV — not because I am, in any way, critical of the organisation, but simply because its future is not within its gift. A huge opportunity exists. As I said, I am concerned that the net will be cast wide enough and that we will, if you like, punch hard enough while the window of opportunity is available.

I am sure that the Committee has much more expertise on the matter than me, but I believe that the time frame for legislation will slip. Andy Burnham, Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, is adamant that there is tremendous urgency. He insists that spring 2009 is the deadline for his legislation. Therefore, I make two suggestions. First, that the Assembly, the ministerial team and, indeed, Westminster MPs devise a vehicle whereby Northern Ireland can present a single, united lobby — perhaps not through a broadcasting commission, as is the case in Scotland, but as a single voice that says that it is no longer good enough for public-service broadcasting to ignore the issues and needs of Northern Ireland beyond local news provision. Secondly, I urge that that is done swiftly, in anticipation that Andy Burnham will achieve what he has set out to achieve in respect of the timing of legislation.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Richard. I offer members the opportunity to ask questions.

Mr McNarry:

Thank you, Richard. I am sorry that I missed the start of your presentation. I have reread your briefing paper. Can you explain the part that refers to Michael Grade and his mercenary approach — those are, perhaps, my words, not yours — that he has adopted? I can understand that because it applies to commercialism. You say, however, that a public-sector broadcasting fund for news coverage could be the solution. Can you expand on that? To whom would the fund be paid? How much would it be? How would it be controlled?

Mr Williams:

The Scottish Broadcasting Commission is pressing for a channel to be created, for which it has put a cost of £70 million. There is growing modus operandi in broadcasting of pro rata reporting according to population; although, at the same time, there is a realisation that below a certain level, programmes will cost as much as they cost. By that reckoning, I suggest that a fund of approximately £30 million would not be unreasonable.

When I first heard that the Scottish commission was pushing for a £70 million public-sector broadcasting channel, I thought that their heads were in the clouds because there was absolutely no chance of that. I am only reading the mood music, but indications from Ofcom suggest that it is not quite as fanciful as I first thought, possibly because the political lobby from Scotland has been extremely strong.

One could work out the cost of the present UTV news provision and put it into a fund. Ofcom is suggesting that that could possibly be part of a UK-wide fund, or it could be a fund controlled in Northern Ireland. The Welsh are looking at a fund, and they are exercised that the Welsh Assembly should have some relationship with that fund. Obviously, in editorial terms, it must be a stand-alone organisation.

Mr McNarry:

Would taxpayers pay for the fund, or would it be paid by commercial interests?

Mr Williams:

Broadly speaking, it would be taxpayers. However, Ofcom appears to be leaving the question of how the bill will be paid to Westminster. I am not an expert on the issue, but the sale of spectrum, which is the digital switch-over, is still expected to deliver a substantial windfall to the taxpayer, and there is a suggestion that that may be a means of paying for it. There is also a suggestion that there is a line in the BBC licence fee that is currently not going to the BBC and is being used for digital switch-over. That figure is about £130 million, and it has been suggested that that might be a source of funding for PSB within the nations.

Within a fund mechanism, it is possible, at least in the early stages, for business, basically, to continue as usual. I do not want to pre-empt anything, but I suspect that UTV would win any tender to deliver news provision in the early days. It has been doing a good job so far, so why would it not? However, if the rug were pulled out from under UTV, we would not be back to the drawing board; the money would still be ring-fenced, the purpose of the money would be clear and it would be an exercise — albeit a difficult one — in looking for a platform and a schedule for that local news on which to piggyback.

I do not want to say that a fund is the only way that the scenario could be resolved. However, I see the fund as a way of bundling the three issues that are important to public-service broadcasting — network production portrayal, which has been an abysmal failure in the past; indigenous language provision; and news plurality.

Mr McCartney:

I was struck by your point that the North was not portrayed in mainstream broadcasting in Britain. You then said that the Scottish Broadcasting Commission has done a good service to both Wales and the North. Is it a coincidence that the Scottish Government have more of a sense of what Scotland is, rather than the previous Executive, which was an extension of London politics? Has that had an impact? Rather than restrict ourselves to a lobby from the North, we should be looking across the island for public-broadcasting services.

Mr Williams:

You make several different points. I suspect that was a reasonable challenge in Scotland that the Scottish Broadcasting Commission managed to get cross-party support and consensus on its proposals, which is critical for any lobby in Northern Ireland.

As regards the all-island question —

Mr McCarthy:

Would that have happened if there had been a Labour-led Government rather than a Scottish National Party-led Government?

Mr Williams:

It is connected to devolution, yes.

Mr McCartney:

It is not about devolution; there has been a distinct shift away from an extension of the British Labour Party to a coalition that is led by the Scottish National Party. We now have a Scottish Broadcasting Commission. Is that a coincidence? How did that happen? I am just asking for an opinion.

Mr Williams:

My opinion is that there is no doubt that Alex Salmond is very passionate about this issue for Scotland. However, in my experience, as far as it goes, the Labour, Liberal Democrats and, indeed, Conservative representatives were similarly passionate, and they took a cross-party view that was absolutely about Scotland, and it did not matter whether they were Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats or Scottish National Party representatives; it was a Scotland-first approach.

Lord Browne:

You said that you do not favour the setting-up of a similar commission in Northern Ireland, that it is too late and that the fight has to be taken directly to Westminster with a united view. Ofcom proposed three models; which one would serve us best?

Mr Williams:

I was very keen on a broadcasting commission model. I have seen it work successfully in Scotland, and I am on record as suggesting it to Departments. However, the window of opportunity is small now, and, to be honest, one could take the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s report, cross out the word “ Scotland” and replace it with “ Northern Ireland”. Although there are key differences, many of the underlying issues are similar. The all-island dimension is different, as are the language issues. The biggest difference is probably the scale of the undertaking, which is why I believe that it is unlikely that we could come up with a channel model, as is being pushed in Scotland. However, we are stretching into the views of Richard Williams and going beyond the views of Northern Ireland Screen.

My view is that a fund is the best option, because it addresses the fact that we cannot predict the future of UTV and ITV or of platform development — the future of television in general. Northern Ireland Screen administers several funds, and my experience of those funds is very simple. If you are holding the money, the broadcasters who have been very sniffy for a very long time will suddenly take a different view.

A fund would immediately change the issue of portrayal and production, and I do not see any reason that money that might have been channelled towards Channel 4 in order to address the weaknesses in its model could not be channelled towards Northern Ireland or, indeed, any of the other nations. At the end of the day, Channel 4 can get the money back. All it has to do, perhaps, is to ask a company in Belfast, or anywhere in Northern Ireland, to make a programme, for example, about the trials and tribulations of young mothers, and set it in Limavady rather than London.

Mr K Robinson:

I thought you were going to suggest making a programme about the trials and tribulations of MLAs. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your submission, Richard, and for answering questions.

A four-member team, comprising representatives from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU), are our next witnesses. You are welcome to the meeting.

Ms Mary Curry (National Union of Journalists):

I am the joint mother of the National Union of Journalists’ chapel at UTV and a member of the union’s Northern Ireland broadcasting branch. Luke Crawley is the assistant general secretary of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union. Pat Styles is a national official of BECTU. Séamus Dooley is from the National Union of Journalists.

I thank the Committee for its interest in the matter, which ranges from concerns about jobs to the wider issue of the future of public-sector broadcasting. I never imagined that I would find myself here, and especially not under such circumstances. However, I feel compelled to express my genuine concerns and those of my colleagues at UTV. The impending job cuts are not only a loss for people who face redundancy at this time of year, but they are a huge loss for Northern Ireland’s fine tradition of news, sport and current affairs broadcasting.

If there were only one political party, politics would be rendered meaningless. Similarly, UTV’s cutting of jobs introduces the real threat that the BBC will find itself in an unrivalled position when it comes to producing in-depth reportage on all aspects of Northern Ireland life. UTV was once proudly billed as “your TV”, a quality local broadcaster that kept communities abreast of all that was happening. The proposed changes threaten to leave that reputation in tatters.

‘UTV Live’ is the most-watched news programme in Northern Ireland. We have always recognised that our audience requires the highest standard of news reporting. It wants us to be consistently impartial, accurate and fair. A mere four years ago, UTV wrote the following to Ofcom:

“ We believe that our experienced journalists provided considered analysis, and that they used their professional judgement to make informed comment on how a news story might develop. This, we believe, provided judicious news which appealed to our discerning audience.”

Those words now ring hollow, because much of that experience is set to go. The flagship current affairs programme, ‘Insight’, will also go. That programme exposed paedophilia in the Catholic Church and loyalist agents operating above the law. More recently, it exposed the debacle of the Northern Ireland Events Company, the face of a dangerous rapist to the community in which he lived and the deaths of two mothers at Antrim Area Hospital’s maternity unit. ‘Insight’ will be retained in name alone; it will be wheeled out like the best china a mere four times a year.

Under the Ofcom proposals, the hours of current affairs programming will not be reduced. On paper, that may look good, but the reality is much different. Little room will be available for investigative journalism, and cheaper alternatives will be left to fill the void.

In Northern Ireland’s changing news agenda, the coverage that ‘UTV Life’ gives to the arts, local events and quirkier news stories serves not only as an amiable preamble to the news but as a platform to the stories that do not make the headlines. ‘UTV Life’ will also be no more.

UTV’s coverage once took sports fans to the heart of the action. Gaelic games, rallying, local soccer and the North West 200 were its lifeblood. All of those are gone, and the back-page splashes that we regularly produced are now reduced to fillers in briefs columns.

UTV has a new motto, “Now and Tomorrow”. Now, it remains the choice of most families here who tune in to hear news, current affairs, sports and the arts delivered in a familiar, friendly and authoritative voice. Tomorrow, that voice will not be guaranteed.

Mr Luke Crawley (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union):

I thank the Committee for the invitation to come and speak to you. The issue is very important, which is evidenced by the fact that all parties have supported a motion to outline their concerns about what is happening at UTV.

I shall speak briefly about the public-service aspect of the issue. Under the ongoing consultation, BECTU has responded to Ofcom with our view that public-service provision and funding is vital to the future of the broadcasting system. It is said that the BBC is the cornerstone of that system, and, nationally, that is true. However, as members of the Committee have already pointed out, that is not necessarily the case in Northern Ireland. In fact, there is a strong and compelling argument that UTV has a particular place in the hearts and, importantly, in the viewing habits of the people who live here. It is essential that that type of pluralism is maintained.

Ofcom stated earlier that it is not instructing anyone to stop making programmes, because that is not its responsibility. Ofcom said that it is putting in a floor, not a ceiling, to which I am tempted to saythat it is a floor. When companies are told about that, they will reduce their programming, saying that they do not have to produce one second longer than is required by the floor set out by Ofcom. That is flatly wrong, and it is somewhat dishonest of Ofcom to pretend that what happens next it is nothing to do with it. Ofcom knows full well that if it were to set a higher level of programming, the companies would be required to meet that.

Ofcom said, at some length, that it thinks that the model of public-service broadcasting in the commercial world is broken. I fundamentally disagree with that. Ofcom put forward three options: evolution; BBC/Channel 4 limited competitive funding; and competitive funding. We think that the evolution option got us to where we are, and that evolution is how we should go forward. We see no problem in doing that.

Currently, commercial television companies have a licence to broadcast in an area, and with that, come obligations. Under those obligations, those companies can sell advertising, get analogue spectrum and have a placing on the programme guide. That is not going to change in the new digital age. Those companies will still need a spectrum — it will be digital rather than analogue, and we think that they can be charged for that — and they will still want a place on the programme guide.

Michael Grade has been very bullish in saying that he would happily walk away from the entire issue now. Clearly, that is not true; he is posturing. If he stopped being a public-service broadcaster, ITV would lose its right to sell advertising in the way that it does; the two matters go hand in hand. Our argument is that public-service broadcasting can go forward if we insist that commercial broadcasters still have an obligation to produce public-service broadcasting.

There has been much talk about a reduction in the number of hours of required programming. I will not go into that, except to say that, if that goes through, it will have a major effect on what happens here. There is no question that UTV appears to be trying to railroad that through before Ofcom comes to its final decision, which will be in January 2009 at the earliest. The BBC would then have an unparalleled advantage, and people in Northern Ireland would be less well served.

Carved into the lobby wall at Ofcom headquarters in London, is the message: Ofcom is here to look out for the interests of the viewers. It seems to me that Ofcom is not looking out very hard for the interests of the viewers. In accepting that a TV company that has been profitable for a long time should be allowed to cut back on the amount of programming that it is required to make under the public-service remit, Ofcom is not looking out for the interests of viewers. That is an essential point.

Northern Ireland is not the same as the rest of the United Kingdom. Different rules do not necessarily have to apply, but the fact that it is a different place must be taken into account. UTV is not losing money; it has been making money and looks on target to make more profit, even after tax, again this year.

UTV is trying to use the Ofcom consultation as an excuse to cut jobs and slash local programming. Nothing should happen until the publication of the Ofcom report next year. There must be proper consultation.

Mr Séamus Dooley (National Union of Journalists):

Thank you all for your interest in the issue, which is of enormous importance to citizens of all ages in Northern Ireland. The National Union of Journalists was one of the first organisations to call for a broadcasting commission in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is different, and I do not accept the analysis that there is less news in Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is not at conflict.

Happily, there is different news, and that news reflects diverse strands of civic society, economics, health and education. Those are the bread-and-butter issues that are dealt with in this Building every day by you and by your colleagues in other Committees, and they deserve coverage. They deserve more than coverage — they deserve analysis.

The review is supposed to be about public-service broadcasting, not just about UTV. However, UTV’s interpretation of a recommendation that is not yet finalised means that there will no longer be that detailed analysis. I believe that detailed analysis is a central part of public-service broadcasting.

Sport, across a diverse range, forms an integral part in the life of Northern Ireland. UTV’s proposals to abolish the position of sports editor and merge it with that of news editor, is a reflection of a flawed policy that relates to a very important aspect of public life.

ITV and UTV regard the Ofcom process as a done deal. All Ofcom has done is to say, look — no hands. I do not think that that is good enough. Ofcom’s obligation is to protect public-service broadcasting, and I do not believe that any public organisation can allow a situation in which a company files a redundancy notice and identifies, as part of it, regulatory reduction in Ofcom output. It is a recommendation, not a decision, and the state agency does nothing about it other than note it. We deserve more from Ofcom. It is a Pontius Pilate act that we cannot stand over.

Public-service broadcasting is important. We must rely on the BBC to be the cornerstone of public-service broadcasting. In the South, we know the impact of adventures that are based on commercial decisions. In broadcasting, the implications of the Century Radio debacle had a huge impact on RTÉ, its pension scheme and its employment. The one question that the Ofcom representative did not answer was Mr Ramsey’s question concerning employment. Ofcom thinks that it does not have a role in employment, but I do not think that one can ignore the employment implications of a decision, or the interpretation of a decision or direct recommendation.

The prospect of top-slicing — that is, the concept of taking money from the BBC and giving it to commercial broadcasters whose priority is the interest of shareholders — poses a very real threat. It poses a threat to the BBC and to commercial broadcasting: the incentives and imperatives are different. The imperatives of commercial organisations are share prices. They are commercial organisations: they are in it for the money. We must be very careful about the protection of public-service broadcasting. In addressing the Ofcom analysis, I believe that Ofcom is wrong in deciding that the model is flawed and that we need a new one. We need to examine the model, and we need an economic analysis that contains part carrot, part stick. BECTU and the NUJ have commissioned a study to consider the potential for financial incentives, including the use of tax initiatives for those engaged in public-service broadcasting, and levies for those who do not produce their own programmes.

Over the past 50 years, UTV has played an important part in the life of Northern Ireland. It is in all our interests to ensure diversity and plurality, and that any decisions taken because of short-term economic difficulties — and there are economic difficulties — are in the best interests of the viewers and the organisation. UTV could become simply another platform, a vehicle by which viewers can watch popular programmes. That is fine, and those programmes have their place. However, that does not become a public-service broadcaster, and eventually it becomes the lesser-spotted UTV.

Mr Shannon:

I sympathise with your points. The Ofcom representatives referred to “new hours” — their terminology. They said that these were the minimum and that UTV had the right, if it so wished, to produce more hours. Will you comment on that, please? It has been intimated by others, including Ofcom and Northern Ireland Screen, that the motives for these changes emanate from ITV centrally. You mentioned other issues such as levies and/or tax breaks, which could be examined as incentives for greater investment. Will you give us some indication of how that would work?

Mr Dooley:

Regarding the first point: the quality will remain the same. You cannot fit two gallons of water into a glass that size. No industry can afford to wipe out experienced staff members’ jobs — technical, journalistic and editorial — and continue to provide the same service. Although that may be UTV’s intention — it would be suicidal for any commercial operation to do otherwise — it cannot maintain the same level of service if it wipes out the jobs of people with decades of experience of covering Northern Ireland.

This morning, in reply to a question from either Mr Shannon or Mr Brolly, Ofcom stated that the broadcaster that jumps ahead bears the risk. No, it does not; the people who accept voluntary redundancy because they see no future for themselves, or the people who will be made compulsorily redundant, bear the risk of UTV’s pre-empting the decision. Even if the company were to make the wrong decision, it would still be able to hire new people at a lower rate.

Given that we have commissioned an eminent research institute to carry out specific enquiries into the nature of the analysis that prompted the decision, I will not attempt to answer the member’s question about it. Nevertheless, we envisage there being tax breaks and incentives for companies that meet their public-service obligations. In an Ofcom forum, our general secretary, Jeremy Dear, suggested that Ofcom should conduct a similar detailed analysis, which — rather than the current one-two-three, tick-box approach — should form part of the decision-making exercise; Ofcom refused to do that. I hoped that we might have been able to give the Committee an exclusive by having our report ready for this meeting; unfortunately, we do not.

Mr Shannon:

David McNarry asked Ofcom whether its consultation might lead to a change in the proposed recommendations, and — although extracting information was like pulling teeth — its representative replied that it might. Are you persuaded?

Mr Dooley:

Although my colleagues may wish to comment on that possibility, based on what I have seen so far, I am deeply worried that consultations may not lead to changes.

I recognise that there is a global financial crisis, with serious implications for commercial broadcasting, so I concede the fact that there will be job losses in the sector. However, there is a danger that that long-term situation might be being used to justify short-term decisions.

The Chairperson:

Do you sympathise with the assertion that commercial broadcasting is in decline?

Mr Dooley:

I do. I ran a little late for this meeting — for which I apologise — because I was taking a phone call about further redundancies in the media sector.

The decline in advertising revenues — and in consumer confidence — clearly has financial implications for public-service broadcasting. In the South, RTÉ depends on mixed-revenue funding, and, in Northern Ireland, UTV is funded entirely by advertising. There are also serious implications for radio as well as for television.

Above all, we hope for a structured response to the need for redundancies, which, initially, should be voluntary. Although we do not live in a bubble, we must be conscious of the fact that broadcasting decisions that are taken now about UTV have long-term implications. That is my concern, and I know that it is shared by Luke.

Mr Crawley:

We recognise that the industry is changing; we would be stupid not to. After all, our members work in, and tell us about, the industry, and if we failed to pay attention, they would be quick to ensure that we did.

Although there are many ways for an employer to deal with change, we believe that the best way is for it to produce proposals — such as those emanating from the review that we have commissioned and those from the reviews that have already been completed — and then to sit down to talk to employee representatives, which, in UTV’s case, are the unions. BECTU and the NUJ have long records of negotiating through difficult situations such as this, and our greatest concern is that it is not appropriate for an employer to announce redundancies without attempting to consult and to rush those proposals through before considering the outcomes from a review.

Although, as trade unions, we make no apologies for representing our members, we are aware of the wider context in which decisions are being made. Therefore, I concur with Séamus that decisions taken now about the future of broadcasting will impact on our members’ employment prospects as well as on the future viewing habits of Northern Ireland citizens.

Mr Patrick Styles (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union):

It is all well and good saying that change is required — as Séamus said, we do not live in a bubble — and we are happy to assist in managing change; however, in order to do so, people must be honest about the details of those changes. Otherwise, it is impossible to conduct any meaningful dialogue.

The Chairperson:

Another four members have expressed a wish to ask questions. I ask them to be brief.

Mr P Ramsey:

Was there been any indication that there might be redundancies and reductions in current affairs and sports programmes prior to the release of Ofcom’s initial proposals? I agree that redundancies in any area of work are emotive and sensitive issues, and I am sure that morale is low in the sector. However, if I may go back to something that Mr Dooley said, a quality programme, such as ‘Insight’, or high-quality sports programmes, will attract quality advertising and revenue. You say that you have asked someone to conduct an audit. The reduction of quality programming is likely to reduce the opportunity to receive big dividends from advertising revenue.

I presume and hope that negotiations are going on between the unions and UTV. Most parties, if not all, have called on UTV to postpone any introduction of redundancies or reduction in quality programming until the outcome of the consultation has taken place. Is UTV going down that road? Is it supporting that call from all the political parties in Northern Ireland? Is it a done deal? Is UTV prepared to await the outcome of a consultation? Are ‘Insight’ and the good sports programmes that you mentioned finished for good? Are they off the radar? It would be wrong to chuck those programmes on the dust heap now. The creation of those shows requires editing and production skills, and once they are lost, it is difficult to bring them back.

Mr Dooley:

First, this is not an industrial-relations forum. Secondly, I would never dare to answer for Michael Wilson, who will be next to provide evidence to the Committee. We are disappointed that, to date, the company has not accepted our request that the threat of compulsory redundancy be lifted; that is a major concern for us. The prospect of compulsory redundancies remains, and the company’s documentation to the Department states that 35 jobs will have to go; however, I know that a lower figure has also been quoted.

We are in negotiations. They have not been harmonious, but we are making progress. I think that I speak for both unions when I say that I recognise that it would be difficult to retain all employment. We would like to explore alternatives to redundancies, and we do not believe that that exploration has taken place yet. However, I think that we are moving in that direction.

It is regrettable that the company is proceeding with some programming decisions in advance of the completion of the process. The final ‘Insight’ programme goes out next Monday. As one, among many, from the South who watches ‘Insight’, I see its loss as the loss of a distinctive current affairs programme — remember that it has the rare distinction of being the television programme that brought down a Government.

Mr P Ramsey:

Were there discussions with the trade unions about redundancies prior to the release of the Ofcom proposals?

Mr Styles:

I echo Mr Dooley’s comments about ongoing negotiations, and it is hoped that they will have a meaningful conclusion. I remind the Committee that the proposals were released on the same day — 25 September — that the company issued the threat to cut jobs. The indecent haste with which that has progressed has not helped matters, but we are hopeful of making some progress and getting a meaningful outcome from the negotiations.

Mr McNarry:

I do not think that there is a Member in the Assembly who would not pay tribute to the journalists who have worked in Northern Ireland through our serious times. If an opportunity presents itself to pay such a tribute, we should do it now. We pay tribute to journalism, and, in particular, news journalism, which kept many people alive, in that it let people know where not to go.

I am concerned about how the public will be treated. Having seen the John Sergeant phenomenon give rise to the power of public opinion and its ability to hit back at so-called experts, I must say “Hear, hear” to the great British public, and good luck to Christine Blakeley for Saturday. Pat can do his bit about our man on ‘The X Factor’.

The Chairperson:

Eoghan Quigg.

Mr P Ramsey:

He is a constituent of mine — he is from Dungiven.

Mr McNarry:

I am glad that we have a balance. Christine is from Newtownards.

The Chairperson:

I want more local programming like ‘The X Factor’. [Laughter.]

Mr McNarry:

I wish that you had not said that — that is shocking. It is that type of stuff that is doing all the damage. If I were the controller of a television station, and wanted to earn big bucks, I would want to stage loads of ‘X Factor’-type programmes in Northern Ireland, because they would garner a great deal of advertising revenue. Anyway, I digress.

Mr D Bradley:

You should try for an audition, David.

Mr McNarry:

I did not catch that.

Ofcom indicated that there had been, so far, very little public interest in its consultation exercise. What do you think of that?

Mr Crawley:

We have a strong view on that. Ofcom is consulting widely in London, and it has held some meetings — I use the word “some” advisedly — outside London. Our members have asked us why Ofcom has not held any public consultation meetings near their workplaces, or in the cities in which they live. It is not clear to us how much effort Ofcom is putting into getting out and talking to the British public, whether on the mainland or over here. We would say that Ofcom is not paying enough attention to the British public.

We have already heard this morning that the Northern Ireland public feels strongly about what is happening, and that they do not like it. I am sure that Ofcom will say that there is potential for change as a result of its consultation exercise, but it is not clear to me, having heard about the concerns that were expressed by the public, that Ofcom would change what is was going to say about the UTV situation. That seems to me to be not impossible, but pretty unlikely. You are right to be concerned about that.

Mr McNarry:

The review is not a news item, which also intrigues me. I do not know whether UTV will put this on their news bulletins tonight or whether the BBC will do so, but it is not a big news item. There does not seem to be a campaign that the public are aware of. In preserving a balance, people should be careful that something does not go by default.

I have two more points to make, Chairperson, with your indulgence. First, I am a commercial animal, and I have a difficulty with the position that your union has taken on UTV, which is a commercial company with shareholders that it must satisfy. I am quite sure that if the BBC or any other broadcasting network was in the same position, your representations and your interests would be similar, and I respect that. Has UTV broken the law? Is it likely to break the law? Is that not equally a question of public interest?

UTV is putting up an admirable defence, which I will come to in a moment, but it is being branded as the bad guys. It is a commercial company, with responsibilities. We heard a very interesting comment earlier about funding, which we might factor in later.

UTV has stated that, as a net result of Ofcom’s proposals, there will be more news from UTV’s licence area than any other Ofcom licensee, and greater coverage when more people are available to watch. That is what it will be serving up under new programming if the proposals are adopted. It states that the net result will be more current affairs on UTV in 2009. It also states that there will be more UTV programmes during peak time, and that UTV will remain the largest producer in the ITV network of programming for its region.

UTV states that that will be the outcome if it adopts Ofcom’s proposals. I have been asking about the power of public opinion, and whether UTV has broken the law. Do you reject those statements about delivery? That is a matter of public interest.

Mr Styles:

If I may return to the issue of breaking the law, we as a trade union absolutely recognise the commercial reality. Our members are working in that reality and it would not be in their interests to see the company fail. We are doing what we can to work with the company — so much so that we took legal advice when the proposals were first produced. If we had been minded to, if we did not wish to engage in meaningful dialogue, we could at this moment be lodging around 41 employment tribunals — but what would be the point? Where I come from, the whole point of being a trade union official is to have meaningful negotiations. The only way that anything can be resolved is through meaningful dialogue. As the national official responsible for BECTU members, my judgment was that it would not be a good call to enter straight into the legal process, because that would place obstructions in the way of the possibility of meaningful dialogue.

I take on board the point that you are making with regard to the responsibilities towards the shareholders, but I also make the point that UTV has built U105, u.tv, and the broadband provision all on the back of the brand that was started with the television station. Although there is obviously an obligation to the shareholders —

Mr McNarry:

There is nothing wrong with that.

Mr Styles:

Nothing at all.

Mr McNarry:

The company is employing more people.

Mr Styles:

If it is employing more people, that is wonderful, but there is also an argument that some loyalty should be shown to the workforce that has allowed the company to become such a commercial success.

Mr McNarry:

The issue of loyalty is perhaps a moral question. I need to be clear on the law. The company is not breaking the law.

Mr Styles:

Technically, the organisation is actually in breach of the law. The HR1 form that has been submitted means that it is in breach of the law.

Mr McNarry:

You mean that it is in breach of the law contractually?

Mr Styles:

Contractually, we are in the process of negotiation, so hopefully that will not be an issue, and the contract will be abided by.

Mr Dooley:

It is important to make clear that, although UTV is a commercial organisation, it has a public-service broadcasting obligation, which is a legal obligation. The freedom to broadcast and obtain a broadcasting licence is not unregulated; it brings with it responsibilities.

Mr McNarry:

The company is referring to broadcasting with reduced numbers, and what I have read is that, in fact, the organisation is going to improve.

Mr Dooley:

If it can do that, it would be the first broadcasting organisation that I have seen that can deliver a better sports service without a sports editor. I cannot see how one can eliminate the numbers that they are talking about without getting rid of very talented people, who perhaps in other times might find employment elsewhere, but in the current economic climate that would be a real difficulty.

No doubt the organisation will hire younger, cheaper, leaner people, but I would not stand over that as a trade union official, and I also think that it is a commercial mistake to sell off some of the family silver. There is nothing wrong with ‘The X Factor’ or with commercial television in general. To be honest, broadcasting ‘The X Factor’ is what enables the organisation to fund the public-service broadcasting. Our fear is that we drift in a direction where only ‘The X Factor’ is produced, and damn all public-service broadcasting.

Mr McCartney:

Both Richard Williams and Denis Wolinski said this morning that they had no doubt that Michael Grade would walk away from the licence, but you have given a sense that he may not. Can you elaborate on that, particularly on the advertising element?

Mr Crawley:

I do not think that Michael Grade would walk away from the ITV licence franchises and cease having the rights and the obligations that go with them. As I understand it, one gets the right to broadcast on the analogue frequencies only if one accepts the public-service obligations. If ITV were to stop public-service broadcasting today, at 2.00 pm, it would immediately lose the right to analogue broadcasting. I am sure that ITV is in a parlous state, for which there are many reasons, and we do not have time to go into that today. However, one of the things that are stopping it from collapsing entirely is that it is still able to sell some advertising. If it was unable to broadcast, it could not sell any advertising.

Michael Grade has declared that he does not want public-service obligations in future; he would like to have free digital frequencies and access to Freeview without any cost. However, he still wants to keep channel 3 where it is, so that he can sell advertising on it after 2012. As a businessman, I understand that. One must limit one’s costs as much as possible and maximise one’s profits. If one of those costs is incurred by having to make news programmes and a limited number of regional programmes, he would rather not do that — there is no question about that.

Mr McCartney:

This morning, the Committee heard one set of witnesses say that the public-service broadcasting model is broken and should be replaced, but others said that it is not broken. We are trying to find the balance.

Mr Dooley:

From comments made by Michael Wilson at the Ofcom consultation conference last week, the belief that ITV will not walk away is probably one of the few areas of common agreement between us. We do not believe that threat. It is nothing more than a form of bully-boy tactics; it is not a serious threat. ITV is a commercial organisation, and such action would make no commercial sense.

The Chairperson:

Could you be any clearer than to say “bully-boy tactics”? [Laughter.]

Mr D Bradley:

Do you agree that the pre-emptive proposals from UTV have devalued the whole consultation process, if not made a farce of it? Can the public continue to have faith in the consultation process, given what has happened at UTV? Have you spoken to Ofcom about the UTV situation? If so, what was Ofcom’s response?

Mr Crawley:

We have not spoken to Ofcom about what is happening at UTV, because that is not the first time that a commercial television company has jumped the gun. On every occasion — without exception and going back over the last five to eight years — when we told Ofcom that there was a possibility that those companies were making proposals that would allow a reduction in obligations, Ofcom simply said that it was OK and that it did not see the situation as sufficiently serious to act, because it knew where it was going to end up. Ofcom, with its light-touch approach to regulation, does not think that it is appropriate to get involved and tell those companies that they should not be doing anything at all until it comes out with a final statement. Light-touch regulation was tried in the world economy, and it has been shown to have failed miserably. It is not doing too well in British broadcasting, frankly.

Mr Dooley:

Mr Bradley, it would also be very unfair to single out UTV in this instance, because ITV has adopted a very aggressive approach. It has pre-empted action, and the general secretaries of BECTU and the NUJ have been involved in several calls. Ofcom’s view on the situation is that it can do nothing. In fact, Ofcom would like us to look to the future. We were reminded last week of its process, and that we should not talk about the short term, but about the medium and long term. That is a comfortable position to be in — unless you have been told that some of your members do not have a short term, never mind a long term.

Mr D Bradley:

Are you suggesting that the failure of Ofcom to deal with the pre-emptive nature of the UTV proposals is also a failure in its duty to public-service broadcasting?

Mr Crawley:

On the face of it, that is how it appears to us. However, we are not especially surprised; it is not the first time. It seems that, if the commercial sector says that it cannot possibly afford to do something, Ofcom is far too ready to accept that at face value. It should be taking account of what the public want here in Northern Ireland, but also across the United Kingdom. We do not believe that the public across the United Kingdom want less local news; they want what they have got, if not more. However, because ITV has said that it cannot possibly afford that service, Ofcom has said that it cannot compel it to provide such a service and is willing to reduce the quota. That is having its effect here, as you can see.

Mr D Bradley:

It is quite a serious accusation to say that a public watchdog is failing in its duty.

Mr Crawley:

It is an accusation that we have made before — we have said it to Ofcom at meetings, arguing that it should be more diligent and stronger in its approach to regulation. However, the Committee saw how difficult it was to get Ofcom to agree that it may have some sanctions to exercise against UTV in certain circumstances; Ofcom does not see it as its role to wade into this situation and tell UTV to stop what it is doing and do something different. Ofcom’s approach is to suggest that the matter can be resolved by talking about it, while insisting that its review will be out by the end of February, regardless.

Mr Dooley:

We have been encouraging Ofcom to engage in serious economic analyses about how to fund and promote public-service broadcasting. Ofcom’s view is that it is dealing with the current public-service broadcasters with that remit, and it will see what it can do. I believe that, as a statutory agency, Ofcom’s function is to promote public-service broadcasting; however, the approach that it is adopting is to throw up its hands in horror and say that there is nothing that can be done about it.

The nature of public-service broadcasting will change — how it evolves and how it is achieved as a result of digital technology is a challenge for everyone. However, the body that is responsible for public-service broadcasting has a duty to be proactive in promoting that concept. I do not think that we can give up — public-service broadcasting is too serious an issue for people to simply throw their hands up in horror and say that we can do without it. One of the problems is that it is very difficult to define, but people notice when it is absent.

Mr Brolly:

It is difficult to know what exactly Ofcom can do with a commercial company. It has said that UTV would have been proposing job reductions even if Ofcom had not issued the consultation document.

Having heard the arguments from both sides, I do not feel that it is reasonable to equate Ofcom’s responsibility with that of the union, because it is not an area in which Ofcom has any jurisdiction.

When I asked the Ofcom representatives what happens in the event of one of the public broadcasters defaulting on their licence prescription, I was told that they can be fined. However, although it is something of a bully-boy tactic, ITV could walk away from public broadcasting. Therefore, the issue is not with the role of Ofcom — it relates to how the unions, on behalf of the employees that they represent, can deal with a commercial company. The fact that four or five other television companies are going to shed staff indicates that the companies are trying simply to minimise the effect of the 10% downturn in advertising.

Mr Dooley:

Ofcom’s involvement in this saga arises from the identification of the Ofcom decision by management in its legal document. We accept that there is an economic downturn and are quite prepared to negotiate with the company on the same basis, in the same spirit and in the same terms as we have with the BBC, if UTV is arguing that there is a parallel between the two situations. We are seeking to minimise redundancies and work with UTV to ensure that the interests of the viewers are best served by the implementation of a restructuring that does not involve wholesale redundancies but does involve a full exploration of alternatives to redundancies.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Mary, Luke, Patrick and Seamus, for your presentation.

I invite Mr Michael Wilson, managing director of UTV, to brief the Committee. I advise Michael that we expect a presentation lasting 10 minutes or less, after which members will have an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr K Robinson:

Before Mr Wilson begins, I want to inform him that I will have to leave the meeting shortly, so he should not feel offended if I leave during his presentation — it will not have been because of anything he has said; it is just that I have another appointment.

Mr McNarry:

Mr Robinson said that I could use up his time. [Laughter.]

Mr Michael Wilson (UTV):

Good afternoon, and thank you very much for the invitation to address the Committee today. As the Committee is aware, I wrote to every MLA in early September to bring Ofcom’s second public service review to their attention. I did that because we at UTV believed that there were significant areas that required public and political debate as a result of the review.

Since that time, the commercial conditions that UTV and other broadcasters operate under have dramatically changed — in a negative manner. When I wrote that letter, I was not expecting to have had announced proposals for change on such a grand scale. The company probably would have announced some changes, but certainly not on the scales that are currently proposed.

My presentation today will deal with short-, medium- and longer-tern issues. The short-term issues will deal with UTV’s proposals and the reasons for those proposals. The medium-term issues will deal with our concerns up to the end of our licence in 2014, and the longer-term issues will address the issues beyond 2014, and future licensing.

The proposed changes are pretty well known, and have been well briefed and lobbied on. If any member would like me to run through the proposals line-by-line, I can do that. However, the main thrust of the proposals include: a restructuring of the company, with a staffing reduction of somewhere between 25 and 35; a change to some programming; and an implementation of Ofcom’s proposals, following its review.

The reasons for the introduction of the proposals are three-fold, and I will address those reasons in order of importance to UTV. First, approximately 14 months ago, UTV plc merged the operations and the television-production department into a new division named UTV Television. That allowed us to see exactly what resources we were using, because, at one point, we almost had a supplier-user relationship, rather than a partnership. That partnership has now been established in relation to the use of cameras and editing — and the managers now sit in the same room, whereas previously they were not even on the same floor. As a result, we now understand what resources we require, now and in the future, and we see that we were over-resourced in some departments.

The second reason for the proposals is the economic downturn and its effects. The Committee must be reminded of how quickly that downturn came upon us. There were rumblings earlier in the year in relation to the financial crisis, but it was only in the last three months or so that we have experienced real issues.

What happens in Wall Street and the City of London has an effect in Limavady. Advertisers start to look at their cash flows, whether their goods or services will be bought in the future, and what prices those goods and services can be sold at. Following that, they then examine their advertising spend and, as everyone is aware, advertising and marketing is one of the first budgets to go in any business, particularly during a downturn. As a result of that, we have seen a dramatic reduction in our advertising revenue.

However, such problems are not only affecting UTV. Open any media paper and it will show advertising down 9%, 10% or, in some quarters, 25%. Indeed, I noticed yesterday that one newspaper group reported that advertising profits were down by over 60%. Those are significant reductions in advertising revenues and, as a commercial broadcaster, the majority of our income comes through advertising and sponsorship.

The final issue is the Ofcom proposals themselves. The reason that we are pushing forward with our proposals, and trying to implement them as soon as possible, is that we are over-producing, against the Ofcom proposals. I have heard the debate so far today, and I would suggest that the floor-and-ceiling argument that has been put forward is not relevant. That is because we are producing — and proposing to produce — far more than we are required to under the Ofcom proposals. Unless Ofcom significantly revises its position — by proposing that public-service broadcasting is increased by more than 50%; something that no commentator is expecting — we will be already performing within the scope of Ofcom proposals. Therefore, the use of the phrase “putting the cart before the horse” is, in fact, a red herring. I am happy to answer specific questions on that topic.

I will address the issues that are most relevant to the Committee. We must address the medium-term issues between now and 2014. The Ofcom document is a three-phase review. The first review was published, after which responses were submitted. Similarly, the second review was produced, and further responses will be submitted. Thereafter, the final report will be published. UTV’s response to the first review was bullish, because we felt that significant regional production was sustainable. Everyone knew that it would become more difficult to produce output, and, therefore, we put future reductions tied with the digital penetration in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s digital television consumption is the lowest in the UK, and, therefore, we proposed a glide path tied to the percentage of digital television. As digital television becomes more common, audiences for conventional channels such as BBC One, BBC Two, channel 3, Channel 4 and Five will decrease. Therefore, revenue will also decrease. It is simple commercial maths.

With that in mind, we proposed a reduction. Other broadcasters proposed a flat level of half an hour of regional and national production. We have always considered national and regional provision to be hugely important to our commercial sustainability and to our public face. We are a small brand, and we do not make programmes for ITV network. Therefore, our audience — and UTV itself — values coverage of local programming, personalities, news, sport, current affairs and programmes such as ‘Lesser Spotted Ulster’.

As Richard Williams said, our short-term future is out of our hands. If ITV plc hands back its public-service broadcast licence, we will not have a backbone of network programming to support ourselves. Neither Ofcom nor ITV have outlined details of that hand back. As Séamus said, I would be surprised — and it is a personal opinion rather than a corporate one — if ITV handed back the licence. However, we sent our letter to all MLAs to ensure that politicians in Northern Ireland are aware that such a risk exists and to encourage Ofcom to create a regulatory environment that will allow ITV plc to remain a public-service broadcaster.

Modelling is the long-term issue. Ofcom, initially, proposed four models. The latest document suggests three models, of which your researcher delivered a good summary. However, they are merely models, and none of them fits UTV’s view of the future. We prefer the evolution model, but it must be changed significantly to allow nations and regions to deliver programming that is relevant to their nations and regions. We do not support a one-size-fits-all approach; UTV wants to deliver public-service broadcasting to Northern Ireland while it remains commercially sustainable to do so.

However, the evolution model raises areas of concern. Ofcom might advertise a UK-wide channel 3 licence. Therefore, regardless of UTV’s public popularity, we might be unable to apply for a licence for Northern Ireland. The Committee and the Assembly should be aware of that possibility, and we are grateful for the opportunity to raise that issue to ensure that your policy advisers can adopt party-political positions on the matter.

The train has not yet left the station. I am aware that the Assembly will debate a motion on whether Ofcom’s consultation should be extended. That consultation has being running for almost one year now, and the broadcasters, including UTV, are seeking clarity about their futures rather than trying to second-guess the opinion of the regulator and, indeed, at times, the public and lobbyists. Therefore, we want some clarity from Ofcom and the Department of Culture, Music and Sport (DCMS) on those issues.

Mr P Ramsey:

In the briefing paper, you refer to an increase in current affairs output; will you elaborate on that? Earlier in this session, the Committee heard evidence from the trade-union movement, representatives of which provided an economic analysis of the situation in broadcasting. I will put the same question to you as I did to them. UTV receives good revenue for the advertisements that it shows during quality sport and current affairs programmes, such as ‘Insight’. Therefore, if the quality of those programmes is reduced, the likelihood is that commercial revenue will also be reduced.

As a commercial company, UTV has had it good for several years. UTV’s profit margins for 2006-07 were £2 million, which was an increase of 50%. Two directors were appointed. Last year, profit margins rose from £800,000 to £1·5 million. Therefore, UTV has had some particularly good years, but it must now sustain itself through a difficult period.

The consensus, among all the political parties, is that we are all in an economic crisis; everyone accepts that. However, surely now is not the time to dismantle the capacity of UTV’s current affairs unit, which produces investigative journalism, or the sports unit. We are all proud of that brand; it has done exceptionally good work. Once that is dismantled, it cannot be re-created. Once the capacity has gone, it is gone. Will you await the outcome of the conclusions in Ofcom’s final report before introducing the wide-scale redundancies that are proposed? I also asked the unions this question: did you enter into any discussions with the staff at UTV about efficiency redundancies prior to the Ofcom proposals being drafted?

Mr M Wilson:

I could spend the next two hours answering those questions, but I will try to summarise my points. Of course we will wait before reducing programme hours. At the moment, we are licensed to produce four hours of news programmes. Next year, we will produce between one and a half hours to four hours, depending on when the —

Mr P Ramsey:

That is not the question that I asked. My question is not about four hours or five hours, it is about your proposals to cancel ‘Insight’ and high-quality sports programmes.

Mr M Wilson:

In that case, the straight answer is no. That is not as rude as it may sound. The widely held assumption is that, on the day that Ofcom made its announcement, we devised a plan on the back of a fag packet and rushed that through. That was not the case. Long before Ofcom made its announcement, I had consulted with Mary Curry, mother of the NUJ chapel and executive producer of ‘Insight’, about changing the programme’s format next year. Those debates took place long before the Ofcom announcement.

‘Insight’ has done UTV proud; it has been a very good programme. However, it accounts for less than 50% of our present current affairs output; it is not the backbone of our current affairs output. Last week’s ‘Insight’ programme — although a very good one — attracted one of its lowest ever audience ratings. As a commercial broadcaster, we must maximise audience figures while still delivering on Ofcom’s remit. In the future, we propose to deliver rigorous current affairs in a more accessible way.

One of the things that some — although not all — of the current affairs department have said to me over the years is that they have had a great programme idea but that they could not make it last for half an hour and that it would be great if it could last for seven or 13 minutes. We will be able to deliver that sort of journalism and those sorts of investigations in shorter form. If there is an amazing story, or something that is worthy of a half-hour programme, we will still deliver a half-hour investigative programme. We are giving ourselves the production flexibility to deliver the right programming at the right time for the right audience. I do not think that there is anything wrong with that decision.

As regards collapsing the ‘Insight’ team, our proposal is to merge three current divisions into one. We have a current affairs team, a ‘UTV Life’ team and a news and content team. The idea is to bring them all together into a news and content team. Although we are proposing reductions, there is no proposal to make the current affairs team redundant. The proposal is to move all senior journalists and journalists into pools and to reduce those pools. Equally, there is no proposal to remove the highest-paid journalists. We are looking for a broad skills base. It is a difficult time. I feel for everybody involved in the process. However, it is essential for the commercial viability of UTV.

Mr P Ramsey:

We have heard from the trade-union movement that statutory notices have been served on their members regarding redundancies. They referred to the Ofcom proposals to qualify the reasons for those redundancies. Will you now await the outcome of the final report from Ofcom before you introduce any redundancies?

Mr M Wilson:

I would like to have someone from human resources here, as I did not fill out that form. I do not believe that that was the only reason that was put on the form.

Mr P Ramsay:

It was named.

Mr M Wilson:

It was named, but it was one of several reasons.

Mr P Ramsay:

My question is whether you will await Ofcom’s conclusions before you introduce any redundancies?

Mr M Wilson:

I must return to my previous answer, which is no. Ofcom is not the only reason that we are putting forward those redundancies. Ofcom is the third reason out of three reasons.

Mr McNarry:

It is clear that there is a public affinity with local broadcasters. Some programmes are good, and some are rubbish. I only watch sports programmes when Glentoran has won.

The integrity of public-service broadcasting is now under serious scrutiny, and with it, the role that UTV and others have to play. I have listened intently to what you have said, and I have read what you have submitted. You have obviously embarked on an intensive lobbying exercise, which indicates that you feel that you are either getting a raw deal or that you are worried.

As regards positioning — and I hear what you are saying commercially — will you tell me how highly you rate the current structure and presentations of local news and local non-news programmes?

Mr M Wilson:

I hope that I have a handle on your question. ‘UTV Live’ and BBC ‘Newsline’ serve the audience of Northern Ireland very well. The discussion is not about the quality of the programming; it is about the commercial sustainability. Although I am before the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, there is an economic argument as well.

Mr McNarry:

You are dismissing the quality; you are coming from a money perspective.

Mr M Wilson:

No, I am not; I am saying that ‘UTV Live’ and BBC ‘Newsline’ are of a very high quality. You are one of the members who has talked about the public’s view. As regards the total news audience in Northern Ireland for all channels, it is far, far ahead of any other region of the UK, which is why, in our proposals, we have sought to offer extended news coverage and more detailed news coverage in peak time within those proposals.

Mr McNarry:

I understand that. However, I wanted to clarify that — like me — you rate local news programmes highly.

Mr M Wilson:

I am not complacent, and there is room for improvement. However, the quality and volume of Northern Ireland’s local news production is better than in any other part of the UK.

Mr McNarry:

Are you prepared to stand by and allow the phenomenal viewing figures for news programmes to be affected by the public’s judgement of whether the changes are good or bad?

Mr M Wilson:

My background is 20 years as a newsman. I am not an accountant; I am a programme maker. I have made award-winning news programmes for Sky and ITV for many years. I believe that UTV’s proposals will deliver a better range of stories in an accessible way. UTV has been aiming to do that against the trend of our news audiences, which have increased over the past three years. That sends out a phenomenal message. We have worked with other teams to deliver more accessible and relevant news.

Mr McNarry:

I welcome that response. I interpret from your presentation that Ofcom’s intervention is third on the list of what UTV needs to do. What cuts were you going to make because of the financial environment, irrespective of Ofcom’s intervention? There is a feeling that Ofcom’s intervention presented a golden opportunity for UTV.

Mr M Wilson:

The Ofcom proposal presented a golden opportunity for UTV to do some additional thinking. The proposals that we were making before Ofcom’s intervention were not as dynamic as our full plans will be. I do not want the opposition to know what our final plans will be, but we will offer a far more detailed news and current affairs service.

Mr McNarry:

What cuts were you going to make?

Mr M Wilson:

We had not reached a discussion about pounds, shillings, pence and people. However, we believed that we were over-resourced in news and technical areas. Indeed, an assessment of that is ongoing.

Mr McNarry:

Your submission indicates that you would have proposed job reductions because UTV is staffed at a far higher level than comparable broadcasters, and the financial environment meant that urgent action was necessary. You would not be divulging any relevant information to your competitors by telling me what resources you intended to cut back before the Ofcom proposal landed on your desk. I must congratulate your crystal-ball gazing regarding the financial climate. How many jobs had you intended to cut before the Ofcom intervention? How many programmes were you going to cut? How was your schedule going to be affected?

Mr M Wilson:

I understand where your questions are coming from. Ofcom is important —

Mr McNarry:

Forget Ofcom, and let us concentrate on what UTV intended to do. How many job reductions did you propose to make?

Mr M Wilson:

Ofcom is relevant to the discussion. I need to explain some history. UTV currently produces four hours of non-news output a week. That figure was already expected to fall to three hours this year. Ofcom is relevant, because we were already changing our plans according to that reduction.

We plan to take out some independent production, because it does not affect jobs in the company. I agree with Patrick and Séamus: there are some highly skilled people at UTV who have been very loyal, so our top priority must be to keep as many of them as possible.

Mr McNarry:

How many jobs were you going to cut because of the financial situation alone?

Mr M Wilson:

The answer is not simple.

Mr McNarry:

You made a statement in writing to the Committee.

The Chairperson:

Let Mr Wilson answer; please be brief because there are four other Committee members who have questions to ask.

Mr M Wilson:

I understand why Mr McNarry is asking that question. However, we had not worked out how many jobs would be lost. The ballpark figure was between 10 and 20, but I do not know the final figure because it was never written down.

Mr McNarry:

Would those cuts have been in news output or non-news output?

Mr M Wilson:

The Ofcom definition of non-news output includes current affairs, but I regard it as news output.

Mr McNarry:

What about the weather?

Mr M Wilson:

We are not cutting back on weather reports.

Mr McNarry:

What you are going to do about the weather? It is non-news output.

Mr M Wilson:

It is still going to rain, and we are still going to tell the public. [Laughter.]

Mr D Bradley:

Mr Wilson, it is stated in your submission that UTV will produce more current affairs next year, intends to produce more relevant political, cultural and social coverage, and will deliver the key stories of the day in greater detail. It is also stated that there will be more current affairs output on UTV in 2009 than the level that the station is licensed to produce, there will be more UTV programmes at peak times and that UTV will remain the largest producer of programming for its region in the ITV network. How can you do that with fewer staff, less experience at your disposal and less expertise on which to call? The equation does not add up.

Mr McCartney:

In one of the briefing documents, you said that UTV should be a similar size to Tyne Tees.

Mr M Wilson:

I was making the comparison because of the similar population and, consequently, the advertising revenue. I was not making a comparison of cultural relevance. You can probably tell from my accent why I used Tyne Tees as an example.

Mr McCartney:

The two regions are not similar.

Mr M Wilson:

Rather than any cultural comparison, I was comparing the sizes of the two regions for advertising purposes.

Mr McCartney:

In the event of Michael Grade giving up ITV’s licence, you said that UTV could not apply for a licence to operate in any circumstances.

Mr M Wilson:

No; I am saying that, between now and 2014, all TV stations have a digital replacement licence from Ofcom to broadcast. If ITV walks away from that licence between now and 2014, the back-bone network programming will be lost. Other stations could apply to fill the void that ITV leaves, but neither ITV nor Ofcom have explained the process that will allow that to happen. UTV has expanded into radio, and it may wish to expand further into television if the ITV licences became available. However, the process is unknown to me, and I do not think anyone in Ofcom knows how to get through it either; it will be a legal minefield.

Dominic, we can do all the things that you mentioned because, even after the changes, we will still have more editorial staff than the majority of regions. For example, STV went through significant staffing changes several years ago, and ITV is proposing similar changes now. If we were simply making cuts to save money and protect the bottom line, we could make them deeper by up to £1 million.

However, the effects of those cuts would be seen on screen. Cutting that deep would damage our commercial offering, so we are trying to find a middle way through. Welsh evening news programmes — which I hope are better comparators than Tyne Tees news programmes — will probably have six, seven or eight daily reporters. Our head of news will still have between 11 and 13 people to call on for the daily news programme.

Welsh news programmes use, perhaps, five or six cameras each day. We will offer a minimum of seven or eight cameras each day for coverage in Northern Ireland. The geography here is much less challenging than that in Wales. That is why I can make those statements with confidence. I apologise to those who have already heard me say this, but UTV has tried to reduce staff naturally over the years, because we were staffed at an appropriate level for our recent history. In the past, the day could have started with a news agenda that bore no resemblance to the eventual evening news programme. From 9.00 am — give or take a few items — we now know what will constitute our evening news programme, so fewer resources are wasted.

That is one of the simple facts. Earlier in the evidence session, it was said that there is still a lot of news in Northern Ireland but that it is a different sort of news. I absolutely agree. The changes that are being put in place will allow our current affairs team to work on core political and social stories rather than on long-form investigations. Their skills are as relevant in those genres of programming as they are in long-form investigations. Our audience is crying out for programmes with more relevance and normality, and fewer programmes that look back to the past. More programmes should be made that look to the future, which is what I hear from politicians when we discuss the last election — the issues that were discussed on doorsteps.

Mr D Bradley:

It sounds like you are developing a model that will be more top heavy and will have fewer front-line investigative reporters.

Mr M Wilson:

Please define “top heavy”.

Mr D Bradley:

You said that you will have more editors.

Mr M Wilson:

I did not mean to imply that.

Mr D Bradley:

That is the impression that I got.

Mr M Wilson:

That is not the case. More people will put polish on the product, but that does not mean that we will have fewer people on the front line than in other ITV regions.

David asked whether I am proud of our regional news programming. The content of the regional news programming from both channels is exceptionally good. The area in which we fail — and in which the BBC fails — is the production polish of those programmes, which makes them look regional rather than being high quality. That is the area in which UTV needs to work, not its editorial output.

Mr McCausland:

Reference was made to ‘Insight’. What programmes do you regard as presently comprising your current affairs programming? What will it be like after the changes? Do you accept that many people see it as a dumbing down or a move in the wrong direction as regards the handling of current affairs?

Mr Brolly:

Dominic mentioned the top-heavy issue. All organisations of your kind employ directors and executives who earn huge salaries. It strikes me that, if cuts were made in that area, enough money would be found to pay the people who are currently employed in the organisation.

Programmes with local content are often bought in from the independent sector, and perhaps that should be considered further. I am certain that UTV employees could produce such programmes, possibly better than those outside companies. It is a false economy to get rid of people while we are in a downturn because the organisation might have to go scrabbling back and seek to employ those people again when the situation improves.

Every effort should be made to retain all your existing staff, because the people who prepare, produce and present those programmes are much more important than the news, the issue or the idea. For example, if certain people, whose names I will not mention, were to read the news, viewers would probably switch to another channel. People are your most important economic, cultural and visual asset.

The Chairperson:

Please make your answers brief, Mr Wilson.

Mr M Wilson:

I will try to rattle through my answers. At the moment, our current-affairs programmes are ‘Insight’, which accounts for approximately half of the total, ‘Late and Live’, which accounts for approximately three-quarters of the remaining half, and the remainder are single half-hour programmes, such as ‘My Brother, the Father’, for which we went to South Africa with Father Kieran Creagh, and programmes such as ‘The Troubles I’ve Seen’, the Denis Tuohy documentaries that went out earlier in the year.

Future productions will contain more analysis, similar to programmes such as ‘Newsnight’ or ‘Channel 4 News’, and much shorter programmes on current affairs. However, as I said earlier, space and funding are available for any relevant investigation — please be in no doubt about that.

“Dumbing down” is a tabloid phrase. We will let the viewer decide, but I do not equate a higher audience with a lower standard of programme, and I do not think that we are dumbing down.

I am not on UTV’s board, but it should be praised for creating a vibrant media company that has invested in new media and radio across the UK and Ireland. Had we not made that investment, the future of media in Northern Ireland would be bleak, and the board should not be criticised for creating employment and prosperity here. Their salaries, which were criticised, are benchmarked with the industry, and the solution to the problems does not lie there.

The buying in of programmes is the subject of one of the main creative debates, and I could adopt either position. I do not know whether Richard Williams is still here, but the position that I have taken is to try to represent the broader production sector in Northern Ireland. If companies such as UTV were not helping young companies to make their first independent productions, there would be no pool of individuals with production experience from which Channel 4, the BBC, Five, or even ITV, RTÉ, and so forth, could select, and the creative industries in Northern Ireland would not flourish.

Mr Brolly, you are right about jobs, but not about the wider creative industries. Richard Williams would argue strongly that we are right to have a policy of investment in the independent sector. I like to think that we tread a reasonable middle ground, with good in-house production and the best of out-of-house production, but we could debate that subject for hours.

We have some fantastic people. I am not certain whether I equate reading the news with celebrity, but I guess that that is true of local television. Although we have proposed a reduction in the number of presenters, familiar faces — whichever those faces turn out to be in three or four months’ time — will still present the UTV news.

Mr Brolly:

Your being based here gives you a terrific advantage in relation to your audience, and the fact that your programmes spill over to most of Ireland makes it more economically viable.

Mr M Wilson:

That is one area on which we disagree with Ofcom. We take no additional revenue out of the Irish Republic. Certain advertisers, of which Kellogg’s is one, buy advertising for Northern Ireland as an all-Ireland purchase, and they do not buy advertising for Northern Ireland out of London. Therefore, there are some accounts that are handled in Dublin for which the money would otherwise have come from London. That is not additional revenue; it is simply revenue from the same ads that you see in the UK, but the advertising is bought out of Dublin.

Also — and I do not like admitting facts such as this — but TV3, with programmes such as ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘The X Factor’, is an extremely strong channel. Our audience share in the Republic has dropped dramatically since TV3 got its act together, and even our overspill audience is nowhere near its former level.

Although I do not like to admit that, if we are talking about commercials, it is a fact.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for answering our questions and making your presentation.

Members, the Committee is now tasked with discussing the action that it wishes to take as a result of the evidence that it has heard. It must consider several options. Does it wish to submit a formal response to the Ofcom consultation? If so, what are the main points that it wants to make? Are there common issues of concern on which we can all agree?

The Minister discussed the Ofcom consultation in the House on Monday 17 November 2008. He said that his Department would submit a response to the consultation. Does the Committee wish to ask the Department to copy it into its response? Does the Committee wish to write to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in order to raise any high-level concerns that it has for the future of broadcasting here?

Does the Committee wish to write to Minister Campbell to ask that he reports back to us in person after his meeting with his counterparts in Scotland and Wales in order to discuss their experiences of a broadcasting commission and a broadcasting committee? The Committee could then explore with the Minister what action must be taken to protect local broadcasting. It must be remembered that the Committee first raised the idea of a local broadcasting commission. Therefore, I seek agreement on the way forward. Does the Committee Clerk have anything to add?

The Committee Clerk:

The first matter that must be considered is whether the Committee wishes to submit a response to the Ofcom consultation or whether it wants to go one level higher and go directly to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr Brolly:

Quite, clearly, as someone said earlier, the creation of a commission will take time, which we simply do not have. Therefore, we must try to think of something that can be put into action much more swiftly. Fundamentally, we must get to that point before UTV sends final notices to its employees. At present, it is outside our remit to deal with the how the company operates. People who work for UTV produce the type of programmes that we like to watch. Clearly, those programmes will suffer as a result of the swingeing cuts that have been proposed.

Mr P Ramsey:

Even though UTV is regulated by Ofcom, the consultation is a separate issue. Ofcom has raised several important issues during its consultation. We should submit a formal response to that consultation. The debate that will take place on Monday 24 November will play a huge part in deliberations because it will demonstrate all parties’ positions on the matter.

I do not want to stifle debate, but today’s session has been long. Meadhbh McCann presented an informative research paper on all areas. We must take time out to examine that paper. It would be useful to hear whether Ofcom has conceded to David’s request to extend the consultation period. We plan to meet on either Monday 24 November or Tuesday 25 November, which might, perhaps, be too early to discuss the matter properly. We should, however, take time to consider the matter before the meeting on Thursday 27 November.

Mr McNarry:

We must take a position now in order to justify why we have been here for two and a half hours. Our position can then be sent to interested parties. I will need time to reflect on the matter, because today’s meeting has shifted the focus. Although the focus has been on the able presentations that were made by the unions and UTV, which are diametrically opposed, the heat is on Ofcom and how it has approached the situation. Therefore, in order to determine what the broader picture is in the longer term, we must examine the Ofcom situation in more detail.

Chairman, we must take a position on the matter fairly quickly. Even if it is ignored due to time constraints, we must put down our marker to Ofcom during the consultation.

The Chairperson:

Any imminent discussion will benefit from the Hansard records of today’s meeting. You have often said, David, that you like to read those records.

Mr McCausland:

The deadline for submissions is currently 4 December. Our next meeting is on 27 November. Are we not in a position to be fairly well firmed-up with a response by next week? I was going to suggest the possibility of deferring one of the agenda items to create more space for that.

Mr McNarry:

Is it possible that Kathryn and her team could put together a draft for us on the basis of what they have heard? Monday’s debate worries me slightly, because much of the content relates to commercialism. I would be happier if that were deleted, but that is not going to happen. For us to go deep into commercialism is, I think, beyond us. We need to establish principles. I think that the consensus is that we need to stand up and fight for a local broadcasting company that is under the hammer, and we need to do that to the best of our ability.

Mr D Bradley:

I do not remember all of the alternatives, but I agree about the response to the Ofcom consultation. It would be useful to get a copy of the DCAL response, if possible. I think that it may be worth considering some communication with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport regarding our concerns about the future state of local broadcasting in relation to the commercial element.

I think that, out of today’s deliberations and the debate on Monday, the Committee staff should be able to distil the core views of the Committee and we can add to and extend that next week.

The Committee Clerk:

Chairperson, when my team receives the Hansard report of today’s meeting, which may not be until Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, we will also have the Hansard report of Monday’s Assembly debate. We can then put together a list of the key issues that members and the various organisations have raised.

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