Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 29

Memorandum submitted by Professor Sylvia Harvey, Sheffield Hallam University

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: LEARNING FROM THE PAST

Introduction

  This brief paper is in four sections. All sections deal with television rather than radio or telecommunications. The paper seeks to identify what seem to be the problematic areas in the Bill, though there is much else to be welcomed and supported.

1.   Ownership

  The proposal to open British media (television in particular) to foreign, that is, non-European, ownership is particularly disturbing, for the following reasons:

  1.1  These ownership provisions for broadcasting are not reciprocated in other key markets, notably in the United States. One would have expected that, in the national interest, some clearly advantageous "bargain" would be arrived at in return for such an opening. There appears to be no such two-sided bargain.

  1.2  It is important to distinguish between foreign investment in infrastructural development (for example, in cable construction) and in broadcasting and broadcasting content. In the case of broadcasting the United Kingdom has a strong indigenous production sector and appreciative audiences. Foreign investment is unlikely to enhance and there is evidence to suggest it may damage this sector.

  1.3  It is highly unlikely that American investment in key sectors of British broadcasting will result in improvements in programme output. On the contrary, it will be in the interests of foreign companies with a large "back catalogue" of programmes to use these programmes in the British market at the direct expense of investment in original production. This proposal therefore appears to be directly at odds with the Government's declared intention of supporting Britain's creative industries.

  1.4  The culture of broadcasting in the United States is hostile to the kind of quality content regulation that is at present widely accepted in Britain and other European countries. There is, moreover, a long tradition of taking regulatory bodies to court over what are judged to be decisions unfavourable to business interests. This is particularly worrying in relationship to the United Kingdom provisions on impartiality in programme content, particularly in respect of news and current affairs. In the United States the Federal Communications Commission was persuaded to suspend the Fairness Doctrine (the equivalent to impartiality regulations) during the 1980s and these remain unenforced.

2.   Self-Regulation and the Culture of OFCOM

  2.1  Self-regulation is a risky proposal that could be seen to place corporate interests before audience satisfaction. This method is, of course, preferred by businesses and may be deemed to make a smaller call on the public purse. However, there is historical evidence to show that in the broadcasting field regulatory costs have been met by the industry itself and that standards of output have been maintained through effective regulatory intervention.

  2.2  In a multi-channel environment with intense channel competition and a discernable "dash for the middle ground" it is likely that self-regulation will result in a considerable diminution in the quality and range of television programmes available to British audiences. Much will depend upon the vigilance of the Content Board and upon the regulatory culture established within OFCOM. But there appears to be little recognition of the dangers of self-regulation in the Bill with the result that backstop powers may never be used or used with little effect.

  2.3  As they stand at present the proposals for self-regulation look like a policy for "closing the stable door once the horse has bolted". Audiences have a right to expect a tougher, more exacting policy and practice.

3.   Quality and Diversity; National and Regional Production

  The Bill's support for investment in production throughout the United Kingdom is to be welcomed. However, this should be accompanied by a more formal and specific commitment to generic diversity in programming on what at present are the five main terrestrial channels. For example, OFCOM should have the powers to require minimum investment in original production in documentary, drama, education, arts, news, current affairs and in the coverage of international issues.

4.   BBC Independence

  4.1  The BBC system of governance is in need of further reform with the objective of more clearly separating the role of the governors from that of the executive. However, it is through a strong and independent governing body that standards can best be maintained, the licence fee spent cost-effectively, news and current affairs insulated from improper political pressure and the interests of a diverse audience satisfied.

  4.2  It must be the task of the BBC's governing body to ensure that the corporation sets the highest possible standards within the industry, establishing a benchmark for quality and innovation.

  4.3  The demands of cultural pluralism and concern about over-centralisation and

standardisation suggest that it is not appropriate for the BBC to be brought within the remit of the national regulatory body, OFCOM.

5.   Creative Competition

  5.1  The historical record demonstrates that the relatively small number of channels within the United Kingdom, the exacting regulatory standards, the separation of funding sources and the concentration of resources created a context for the production of some of the best television programmes in the world. The key issue for regulatory practice now is how to maintain and if possible enhance the vigour, innovation, quality and diversity of television output for the next generation of audiences.

  5.2  The forms of technological convergence made possible by digitisation (the convergence of telecommunications, television and computing) have created some confused thinking on the issue of competition. At present the competition represented by the multi-channel universe appears to be delivering more channels and programmes that look alike, that are "safe", that search for the middle ground, the unexceptional and the non-controversial. The intensified competition for audiences is delivering, to a considerable extent, sameness not difference and there must be a role here for intervention in the public interest and in defence of pluralism.

  5.3  The aims of competition must be remembered: to ensure choice and to deliver goods of higher quality at lower prices. While there has been some genuine extension of choice in television, "ratings fever" has also had the effect of reducing the range, quality and ambition of programming.

  5.4  In this context it is a mistake to think that the BBC alone can bear the burden of quality and innovation, sailing like a lone flagship into an uncertain future. Some serious attempt must be made to ensure vigorous creative competition for the BBC and this requires the enforcement of exacting quality requirements on all terrestrial channels. Channel 4 has a particularly important role to play here, but channels 3 and 5 will also help to make or break the environment that sustains (or abolishes) creative competition.

June 2002




 
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