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
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 workbut
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.
3. THE CONSUMER
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
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.
4. MEDIA CROSS-OWNERSHIP
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 yesfor
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.
5. OFCOM AND
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 initiativesscheduling decisions,
new programme initiatives, new channelswhich 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.