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


Memorandum submitted by Professor Steven Barnett, University of Westminster


  The terms of reference for this inquiry are wide, but I propose to confine this submission to three areas in which the Committee has called for evidence: the definition and provision of public service broadcasting; the BBC; and cross-media ownership. I conclude with some comments on the implications for delays in the proposed legislation.

  It is important to preface this submission with a few comments about the context for change in the world of communications. The committee will hear plenty of testimony about a communications "revolution" which will conclude that we are in the midst of a wholesale transformation of people's everyday experience of TV, radio and print. I would like to offer a slightly more cautious perspective: that for the foreseeable future, for most people in the UK, the role and importance of the print and broadcast media in their lives will scarcely change.

  The historical evidence for exercising caution is compelling because over the last 20 years the UK has seen several predicted revolutions come and go. In fact, it is exactly 20 years since a report to government from the Information Technology Advisory Panel advised of the huge entertainment and information benefits which could be delivered by investment in cable. Shortly afterwards, information technology minister Kenneth Baker was predicting that "by the end of the decade multi-channel cable television will be commonplace in-home countrywide".[6]

  The mid to late 80s saw the launch of satellite television, when again there were numerous predictions from forecasters and consultants that well over half of households would have multi-channel television by the mid 90s. In the early nineties, the emergence of powerful home computers fuelled more predictions about convergence between TV, print and computer leading to the erosion of hard copy newspapers and televisions.

  More recently, the emergence of digital technology, of high speed access via fixed telephone wires as well as cable, of WAP mobile phones, and personal video technology like TiVo and Sky Plus have fostered still more prognoses about the imminent demise of mainstream broadcasting.

  It is therefore important to remember what a vital role public service television and radio continues to play in British people's lives at the beginning of 2002. Although multi-channel television has been available to the whole nation since 1989, the five main terrestrial channels still command over four fifths of all viewing time. Although the 90s saw a massive expansion in commercial radio, the BBC still commands over a half of all listening.[7] Although personal computers are now relatively cheap and more powerful than ever, domestic penetration seems to have peaked at the 30 per cent it reached in 1996. Use of the video cassette recorder for time-shifting has been declining steadily over the last 15 years.[8]

  This is not to say that new technology will have no effect on patterns of viewing and listening over time. Some predictions will go the way of the robot and the paperless office. Others may materialise in ways so far unimagined. In 50 years time the world of communications will be different but forecasters, media companies and even academics have little idea about the scale or direction of change. It is therefore important that policy-makers and politicians do not attempt to second guess the future, but legislate in ways that will not prejudice the contribution that broadcasting in particular makes to the quality of people's lives today.



  There are two traditional definitions of—or justifications for—public service broadcasting (PSB) which are still occasionally cited but have little relevance in the modern world. The first is based on spectrum scarcity, and the need to impose obligations on organisations given privileged use of a scarce national resource. Although terrestrial analogue frequencies reaching the whole population are still in short supply, the arrival of subscription-based cable and satellite channels and eventually the shift to digital channels should eliminate this constraint. While still a consideration as long as analogue spectrum is the primary means of broadcast transmission, spectrum scarcity is not on its own a sufficient justification for sustaining a public service philosophy in broadcasting.

  The second definition is based on the traditional Reithian concept of paternalism. The elitist notion that citizens are not capable of understanding what is good for them, and must be guided to material which will educate or inform them, may have been acceptable in pre-war Britain but is anachronistic today. The "high culture" approach is outdated and inappropriate in the modern world.

  A modern definition of PSB must start from the contribution that broadcasting can make to the nation's creative, social and democratic health in the 21st century. This is not easily encapsulated in a single phrase, but is best expressed as a set of aspirational principles. A number of relevant principles have been advanced over the years, of which the most comprehensive can be found in a booklet from the Broadcasting Research Unit (1988)[9], a statement from a ministerial conference on the media in a democratic society (1994)[10] and most recently in a speech by the former BBC Chairman (2001).[11]

  These statements of PSB principle are remarkably consistent and can be summarised briefly as follows: channels should be freely and universally available (and thereby not discriminate on price); cater for all tastes and interests, including minority ethnic, interest and demographic groups; maintain high quality across all programme genres; offer diverse, distinctive and innovative material; reflect the multi-cultural diversity of the nation as well as reinforcing a sense of national heritage and identity; encourage investment in original creative and cultural endeavour; remain distant from vested interests—both Government and corporate—to provide impartial news, information and comment; provide an independent forum for debate and dissent across a wide range of issues, and thus contribute to the development of an informed and engaged electorate.

  The test of public service broadcasting should not be that any single broadcaster or station meets all of these criteria all of the time, but that the broadcasting ecology taken as a whole should be organised along those principles. In more straightforward societal terms, we should be satisfied that we are addressing such core cultural questions as: are we encouraging new writing, acting or comic talent in our broadcast drama and comedy? Do British citizens have access to a varied, high quality diet of news at convenient times? Can our children watch or listen to stimulating, home-grown children's programmes regardless of their parents' income? Are governments, corporations, and other cornerstones of authority being subjected to intelligent and well-resourced public interrogation? Are we giving a public platform to the different beliefs, ideas, origins and anxieties within the nation at large? Are we using the unique power of broadcasting to stimulate new ideas and interests and to expand horizons?

  These are fundamental questions of citizenship, learning and creativity which defy a traditional consumerist approach and which should lie at the heart of any definition of public service broadcasting. But how to provide it?


  Evidence is available from around the world that a broadcasting system left to the marketplace fails to meet almost any of the principles outlined above. In market-led countries like the USA, Australia and Italy, schedules are dominated by a few high-rating genres of programmes such as popular drama, quiz shows, and sitcoms. Intense competition for audiences and revenue means there is little room for innovative formats or new talent. Children's programmes consist primarily of foreign imports and cartoons. Serious discussion on issues of great public interest are either absent or relegated to the margins of the schedule. Big sporting events are likely to be bought by subscription channels and sold to the public as part of a subscription package or on a pay-per-view basis, thereby excluding many people on low incomes. Broadcasters seek to serve existing tastes rather than stimulate new ones.

  Some of these outcomes are emerging within British broadcasting, as competition intensifies and a growing number of channels and stations chase static levels of viewing and listening. However, partly through historical luck and partly through incremental planning, Britain has developed a broadcasting system with a graduated system of public service obligations which still meets—in varying degrees—the principles outlined above.

  This system is not driven by market-place demands, just as our health service and education systems are not driven by market-place demands. There are times—particularly during periods of slow economic growth, as now—when demands placed on the commercial sector seem to be oppressive and to constrain commercial growth. At other times, these obligations appear not to be sufficiently robust or properly enforced. The important issue throughout, however, is that the public interest should take precedence over purely economic interests—and that the public interest should be defined in much broader cultural and democratic terms than sheer consumerism.

  This requires a firm regulatory regime which oversees the commercial provision of public service broadcasting. It also requires a healthy and well-funded institutional presence by the BBC as a benchmark across all areas of programme output.

  Such an institutional presence is a vital component of the public service mix. Some have argued that the proceeds of the licence fee (or an equivalent sum from the public purse) might be evenly distributed amongst bidding contenders by a kind of Arts Council of the Airwaves. Such an arrangement would lead to the progressive dismantling of the BBC. Apart from the international esteem in which the Corporation is held, we would lose a hugely important national space dedicated to creative, cultural and citizenship initiatives. It is difficult, for example, to imagine any other broadcasting institution which would set up its own enquiry into the disengagement of young people from politics and the implications for political coverage.


  Since this inquiry is about the BBC in the context of current communications legislation, I will confine myself to comments about OFCOM and BBC governance.


  As I wrote in my previous submission, I believe the Government is right to keep the BBC outside the regulatory umbrella of OFCOM. The BBC, by virtue of its unique system of public funding and its public Charter and Licence are and should remain accountable through Parliament to its licence payers. To my knowledge, there is no comparable example in the UK of commercial companies and a major publicly funded body being subject to the same regulatory regime.

  Pressure for the inclusion of the BBC within OFCOM comes almost entirely from commercial competitors, for understandable reasons. In such a vigorously competitive environment, reducing the BBC's share of viewing and listening (and thereby increasing the size of the commercial cake) offers the easiest route to commercial expansion. Whatever public interest safeguards might be imposed by Government on OFCOM, regulatory agencies inevitably have a duty towards the companies they regulate as well as the general public. In the words of Tony Stoller, Chief Executive of the Radio Authority, "Appropriate regulation, even for a converged super-regulator, means being accountable and accessible to those being regulated, as well as to the public at large".[12]

  This concept of "regulatory capture" is well established in other industries (Oftel, for example, is seen by many to have been ineffectual against the industrial might of BT). It would become almost impossible for OFCOM to resist interfering with strategic BBC decisions—such as moving the peak-time news—which have potentially negative repercussions for commercial rivals. Turning the BBC over to OFCOM would have the effect of stripping it of its independence for the first time since it became a public corporation in 1927.


  Part of the pressure for the BBC to be folded into OFCOM is a sense that it remains too unaccountable and its decision-making too opaque. In particular, the governors are seen by many as too compliant, acting as "rubber stamps" for the decisions of senior management.

  These problems are part perception and part real, and both need to be addressed without the nuclear option of forcing the BBC into OFCOM. There needs to be a clearer and more visible division of responsibilities, with the Governors setting down transparent strategic objectives in line with the BBC's Charter obligations, and the BBC Executive demonstrating annually how it is meeting those objectives and where (and why) it is failing. There needs to be more visible, and more frequent, contact between Governors and licence payers—perhaps with individual Governors taking responsibility for particular areas of BBC output and asking for public feedback. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee should itself be an important link in the accountability chain between the BBC, its licence payers, and Parliament.

  In one respect, the BBC is probably the most accountable body in the country: every minute of every day, its licence payers are making decisions about whether to tune in to the BBC's output or that of its rivals. Such actions are, however, purely quantitative expressions of interest, and it is important that the Corporation be held to account in respect of all the public service principles outlined above. The answer is to give licence payers more access to express their views, and to empower the Governors to ensure (publicly) that senior managers are fulfilling their public obligations.


  The Government's consultation paper on media ownership quite properly resisted some of the more outlandish claims about convergence. Its acknowledgement that radio, TV and newspapers are still "recognisably different media" and that any convergence that is taking place is happening "at varying speeds and in ways which are difficult to predict" provide a sensible context for considering policy changes.

  Of the options under consideration, abolition of all cross-media controls should not be contemplated. If we are serious about the importance of maintaining pluralism in a democratic society, it should be axiomatic that we do not allow any single individual or corporation undue influence in any one medium or across media. The very slow pace at which convergence in media consumption is actually taking place—regardless of what is possible technologically—means that such controls still play a vital role in preserving a diversity of voices and ideas.

  The paper was also rightly sceptical about a "share of voice" model of regulation. As I argued in my previous submission, such an approach makes unproven assumptions about relative impact and is methodologically unworkable. The paper raises the prospect of a subjectively applied "plurality test" which is superficially attractive, but suffers from lack of transparency and would raise agency problems (would it be applied by a Government minister, OFCOM, the Competition Commission or some other agency?).

  It may not be possible to develop an approach which perfectly combines transparency, flexibility and commitment to pluralism. The closest may be to establish equal limits on all forms of cross-ownership, but the example thresholds quoted (20 per cent of the audience in any three markets, or 30 per cent in two) would need to be reduced. It would be up to the Government of the day, if it felt that a rapidly changing market made a change desirable without compromising pluralism, to bring forward legislation to change the relevant thresholds.


  Given the unpredictable nature of today's communications industry, it is unlikely that delays in bringing forward legislation will have any seriously deleterious effect. Indeed, it may allow certain issues—the future of ITV digital, resolution of any adverse competition decisions against BSkyB, the survival of NTL, the mooted broadcasting plans of BT—to become clearer and therefore make for a more informed policy framework.

14 January 2002

6   Cable Systems, Cabinet Office Information Television Advisory Panel, Cabinet Office, 1982. Baker quoted in Peter Goodwin, Television Under the Tories, BFI, 1998: p62. Back

7   Cable Systems, Cabinet Office Information Television Advisory Panel, Cabinet Office, 1982. Baker quoted in Peter Goodwin, Television Under the Tories, BFI, 1998: p62. Back

8   According to BARB, viewing of non-terrestrial channels amounted to 19.6 per cent in 2001. The most recent RAJAR figures (period ending 16 September 2001) give commercial share of all listening as 46.5 per cent. Back

9   The Public Service Idea in British Broadcasting: Main Principles, Broadcasting Research Unit, London. Back

10   4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy, Prague 7-8 December 1994. Back

11   Speech to a Fabian Society seminar by Sir Christopher Bland, 27 February 2001. Back

12   Broadcast Magazine, 20 April 2001, p18. Back

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