Memorandum submitted by Professor Sylvia
Harvey, Sheffield Hallam University
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)