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".
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
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.
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
There are two traditional definitions ofor
justifications forpublic 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
a statement from a ministerial conference on the media in a democratic
and most recently in a speech by the former BBC Chairman (2001).
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 interestsboth Government and
corporateto 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
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 meetsin
varying degreesthe 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 timesparticularly during
periods of slow economic growth, as nowwhen 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 interestsand 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.
The BBC and OFCOM
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".
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 decisionssuch as moving
the peak-time newswhich 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 payersperhaps 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,
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 placeregardless
of what is possible technologicallymeans that such controls
still play a vital role in preserving a diversity of voices and
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 issuesthe future of ITV digital, resolution of
any adverse competition decisions against BSkyB, the survival
of NTL, the mooted broadcasting plans of BTto 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:
Cable Systems, Cabinet Office Information Television Advisory
Panel, Cabinet Office, 1982. Baker quoted in Peter Goodwin, Television
Under the Tories, BFI, 1998: p62. Back
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
The Public Service Idea in British Broadcasting: Main Principles,
Broadcasting Research Unit, London. Back
4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy, Prague
7-8 December 1994. Back
Speech to a Fabian Society seminar by Sir Christopher Bland,
27 February 2001. Back
Broadcast Magazine, 20 April 2001, p18. Back