Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Steven Barnett, Professor of Communications, University of Westminster


  Despite several references to the vital role of the media in maintaining Britain's cultural, creative and democratic welfare, the emphasis of this White Paper is firmly tipped towards the media as a wealth-creating industry. Certainly, we must protect the economic strength of our communications industries. At the same time, we must try to sustain the enormous educational, informational and creative benefits which our mixed broadcasting system has been able to offer all its citizens over the last 50 years.

  As the White Paper states, this has so far been achieved "by having a mixture of publicly owned, publicly regulated and purely commercial broadcasters". There is a danger that the Government will be swept along on a tide of technological determinism which, when combined with the commercial self-interest of the private broadcasting sector, will convince it to sweep away much of this carefully constructed edifice. While I applaud the White Paper's call for a flexible approach to regulation, I would therefore like to counsel against throwing the cultural baby out with the economic bathwater.

  There are four areas in which the proposals need to be improved or clarified in order to protect broadcasting's positive cultural role in the lives of British citizens: regulation of commercial channels; the consumer panel; media ownership; and the constitutional position of the BBC.


  The strength of the British system has been due in large part to the positive programme requirements imposed on (and largely accepted by) the commercial terrestrial broadcasters. The ITC has demonstrated that these obligations still command widespread public support. Although commercial competition is stiffer now than at any time in broadcasting history, the terrestrial channels still command by far the largest share of commercial viewing and advertising. They are therefore in a position to maintain their contribution to the overall diversity, quality and creative dynamism of British broadcasting.

  The White Paper proposes a substantial shift towards self-regulation in the "more qualitative elements of public service broadcasting". There is no question that the process of bean-counting the minutes of air-time devoted to, say, current affairs or children's programmes is long past its sell-by date. The move towards a system of self-regulation where the broadcasters provide their own programme policy statements should be welcome, subject to two important safeguards which are not apparent in the current proposals.

  First, leaving statements of programme policy to commercial broadcasters whose primary purpose now is to maximise the bottom line is a little like asking Virgin trains to determine its own standards of punctuality. It should be possible, without laying down precise quantities of minutes and seconds, to stipulate a broad range of programme categories and quality criteria to be met within those categories. You do not have to demand a lengthy series of 60 minute programmes on the origins of the Middle East conflict to ask for a demonstrable commitment to serious current affairs.

  The current system has not been particularly successful because, within each programme category, it has been possible to get away with poor imitations of what a commitment to quality programming might involve. While the bean-counting approach could not cope with qualitative differences between programmes, a properly monitored approach to self-regulation might work—but the regulator must lay down a well-defined framework of the kinds of diversity, innovation and standards of quality which are expected. In other words, the "third tier" requirements must be spelt out in more detail.

  Second, the White Paper offers little meaningful concept of when and how sanctions might be applied to miscreants. We are told that OFCOM will have "backstop powers to ensure obligations are met". What they might be, how the regulator can determine whether promises have been broken, and how they will be protected from judicial reviews or all the other paraphernalia associated with resisting a regulator, is too opaque. It is important that the regulator has a range of powers, and is not limited (as was the case under the old IBA) to the "nuclear option" of licence removal. It is also important that Parliament invests the regulator with sufficient power that is seen by the industry as a powerful, well-funded standard-bearer for cultural standards in British broadcasting.


  The concept of an independent advisory body with its own budget and the power to commission research and publish findings is a welcome one. In theory, a body which exists to stand up for the public interest, and to counter the corporate power of big commercial broadcasters and the BBC, could be a powerful and visionary approach to maintaining a strong public voice in the content of broadcasting.

  The current proposals, however, are weak. Although the wording is sometimes ambiguous, they appear to be confined to areas of "service delivery"—meaning presumably the areas usually associated with regulating powerful industries such as access to accurate information; fairness in charging regimes; transparency; mechanisms of economic accountability; and other narrowly defined consumer protection issues. There is no sign of any higher level aspirations which might allow such a body to investigate or comment on the content of programmes, their quality, diversity, information or education content, creative vitality or any other criteria contained within a broad public service definition of broadcasting.

  A meaningful consumer panel would have a brief which includes the consumer as citizen and participant in a democracy, rather than simply the consumer who has a financial relationship with service providers and may need protection from shady commercial practices.

  Indeed, the two chapters on "consumers" and "citizens" appeared to characterise those on the receiving end of broadcasting either as economic customers or as vulnerable viewers requiring protection from potential taste and decency excesses in a deregulated environment. There was little room for a model of broadcasting as a stimulating, energising and dynamic creative force within British society. A panel which included a brief to monitor broadcasting's positive contribution to our lives and culture would underscore the Government's determination not to devolve the airwaves purely to free market forces. I would urge the Committee to take particular account of the newly formed "Public Voice" on this issue.


  The Government has invited comments on whether newspaper owners with more than 20 per cent of the newspaper market should continue to be banned from having a controlling interest in terrestrial television. The answer is an unequivocal yes—for now. There are two reasons.

  First, as the White Paper recognises, "consolidations which are desirable on economic grounds may tend to reduce the plurality of viewpoints and sources of information available". Many commentators were optimistic that the arrival of the Internet would fuel a new generation of small media enterprises with their own voices, thereby making economic regulation irrelevant. As we have seen few of the small companies have survived the "dotcom collapse" and virtually every major media corporation has been reducing its on-line news operations. The much-heralded era of convergence may or may not be on the horizon, but it is certainly not imminent. In consumption terms, the hard copy newspaper and the broadcast news bulletins are still very separate entities, and should continue to be subject to cross-ownership restrictions in the interests of pluralism.

  Second, on purely practical grounds, it would be impossible to regulate ownership sensibly across the media industries. There have been attempts to calculate different organisations' "share of voice", which add together share of newspaper circulation, TV viewing and radio listening. This fails to account for the obligation on broadcasters to remain neutral while newspapers are free to be as biased and persuasive on any issue as they wish. It also makes unproven assumptions about relative impact. There is no evidence that if the same number of people read an article and watch a TV programme with the same message, the impact will be identical. The attempt to measure diversity through share of voice (usually promoted by the media corporations which want to expand into other media) is a methodological nonsense.


  The White Paper was right to resist the option of placing the publicly funded broadcaster under the same regulatory umbrella as commercial broadcasters. It would be absurd for a document which explicitly endorses the need for diversity and pluralism then to insist that the whole of British broadcasting should be subject to the same group of government-appointed individuals (who as it is will wield extraordinary power over our communications industry). Given the choice between the one body or two charged with defining and looking after the public interest, democracy is surely better served by having two.

  Apart from the issue of pluralism, there would be an insoluble conflict of interest. The same body responsible for monitoring commercial broadcasters would also be required to pass judgement on BBC initiatives—scheduling decisions, new programme initiatives, new channels—which would have direct consequences for commercial competitors.

  It is right that OFCOM should be able to comment on the BBC's fulfilment of its promises of performance as long as the Governors continue to be the legal trustees and editorial guardians of the BBC. If there is concern about the Governors' ability to distance themselves from their own programme makers, the answer may lie in changing the BBC constitution at the next Charter renewal: a full-time Chairman, perhaps with a greater scrutiny role. It does not lie in surrendering a 75-year history of independence to a separate body.

February 2001

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