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


Memorandum submitted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)


  1.1  The National Union of Journalists is the Union representing journalists in the UK. Its members work in the national, local and regional press, news agencies, internet services, magazines, the book sector, public relations, local authorities, national government and broadcasting. The forthcoming communications legislation will have major implications for members of the Union, and for the quality and freedom of communications. Concern for the welfare of our members and for the development of media freedoms are at the heart of the NUJ's activities.

  1.2  This submission is, in line with the Committee's request, a short summation of some key points. We will be making a full submission to the DCMS and the DTI in due course. We highlight here some of the positive steps which could be taken to improve the draft legislation, by strengthening the accountability of OFCOM, enhancing the public service elements in the legislation, and encouraging much more diversity and plurality of ownership and opinion.


  2.1  The OFCOM Board is too small and unrepresentative. The absence of representatives from the devolved authorities is a matter of particular concern. Given the importance of its remit, and its effect on media freedom and cultural diversity in the UK, it should be made more representative. We recommend that the OFCOM Board be enlarged, and that it should contain representatives of stakeholders in the communications system, including citizens, educational, trade union groups, and national and regional representation. We recognise that this will only provide a partial degree of representativeness, but it would not be a radical improvement on the present structure.

  2.2  The proposed structure elides distinct activities under similar regulatory regimes. Thus content and "consumer" issues are dealt with by unified boards, whereas the content issues in radio are different to those in television, which are different in turn from multi-channel digital services.This should be remedied by ensuring OFCOM is structured in a manner which reflects, for the present, the real divisions between different sectors.

  2.3  Complaints.  Placing the power of complaints investigation in the hands of OFCOM, makes it licenser, judge, jury and punisher. This function should be separated off from OFCOM and given to a body charged with balancing the needs of media freedom with the public's right to fair treatment.

  2.4  Consumer and Contents Boards.  The Joint Committee will be aware of the imbalance of powers within the draft Bill, whereby the Consumer Board has powers of research and is relatively independent of OFCOM structures. This does not apply to the Content Board. This means that questions of content in OFCOM take second place to questions of consumers interests. At very least, any powers over these two areas should be of equal value.

  2.5  The Content Board should ideally be separate from OFCOM, and have independent powers and resources to monitor content issues in mass communications, and to issue instructions to OFCOM, to which it has to give a reasoned answer, on matters relating to the development of high standards across the system. It should be representative of the widest practicable range of constituencies in the UK. As constituted the Content Board appears to be a weak element within the OFCOM structure.


  3.1  The quality of UK TV and radio has depended on positive regulation. The Bill seeks to promote competition and to lift regulations where possible. These are contradictory purposes, and if the latter is viewed in most cases, as we fear, as trumping the former, then the success of UK broadcasting will be in jeopardy.

  3.2  It is positive regulation that has brought us a successful digital platform in the form of the BBC's digital services. It is the weakening of positive regulation over ITV, and the refusal to extend positive regulation to new major competitors, such as Sky, that has resulted in cuts in ITV's production of news and current affairs, a reduction in regional programming hours and the failure of the ITV digital platform. We have therefore had 10 years in which to judge the effects on PSB in the UK of weakening regulations for commercial broadcasters and allowing relatively under regulated competition. These lessons should inform the forthcoming legislation.

  3.3  News and current affairs.  The 1990 Broadcasting Act (Section 16(2)) requires that a "sufficient" amount of time is given to news and current affairs in schedules. The draft bill (Section 191) omits this. Thus the companies could broadcast short bulletins in peak time without breaching their obligations. The final bill should include a requirement that their should be "sufficient" news and current affairs transmitted in peak time.

  3.4  Section 193 of the draft bill refers to production outside of London as being production "outside the M25 area". The draft bill as whole sets up the possibility of a unified ITV 3 contractor and asserts the need for a continuation of regional programming. The NUJ considers that overall the obligations on ITV 3 contractors to maintain substantial regional production centres, and to make a substantial amount of programming at those centres for regional transmission should be made explicit in the act and should not, as at present, depend on OFCOM's interpretation of the situation (Section 194).

  3.5  The NUJ is disappointed that the ITC has agreed a new charter for the nations and regions with the ITV franchise holders which replaces commitments made at the time of the awarding of regional franchises. Negotiations over new requirements for the licence holders were not open to public scrutiny and debate however, this issue should have been considered as part of the draft communications bill process. The NUJ is concerned that the commitments, which replace strict measurement of regional output could weaken investment and quality. At the very least there should be minimum finding levels put in place to ensure that investment at least matches and, if possible, exceeds current levels.

  3.6  Public Service Obligations.  We consider that the Bill should contain provisions designed to strengthen the public service obligations of all existing licensees, and to extend those, through a system of regulatory incentives, to major competitors (satellite and cable) in the system; this should apply to TV and radio. As it stands the draft legislation presumes the opposite, that the more the system grows the less obligations there should be on new providers. This will lead to an intensification of competitive pressures in the system, and will encourage public service providers to lobby for a reduction in their obligations.

  3.7  In this context Section 5 of the Act, "Duties to secure light touch regulation" should be removed and replaced by a duty to secure the spread of positive public service requirements. Section 5 is a central part of the Bill, empowering OFCOM to allow questions of competition to override, in the final instance, questions of public service. This should not be the case.

  3.8  The Union would like to see the self regulatory presumption embodied in the bill removed. Self-regulation has done very little, if anything, to enhance standards of accuracy and quality in the newspaper press and, conversely, it is regulation that has fostered standards in broadcasting. All OFCOM licensees should be subject to review by OFCOM of their performance. Given this implies a measure of self-regulation in order to meet licensing requirements, the case for a much greater degree of self-regulation seems unnecessary.

  3.9  The BBC.  The BBC has historically been one part of the public service broadcasting system in the UK. It will remain, theoretically, just a part of this system after the passage of the Act. But it is a central part of the system. Its globally acknowledged success is built on its relative freedom from the dictates of the market. This must remain the case. The BBC's recent successes in the ratings, its digital expansion and, initiatives like the Asian network, are a function of this freedom. Thus, allowing it to become a subordinate part of OFCOM, whose current purpose is to promote competition in broadcasting, severely undermines the prospects for the continuance of a cornerstone of UK high quality public broadcasting. It is therefore imperative that OFCOM should not have any role, beyond the most minimalistic one of being involved in dialogue with the Corporation on matters of mutual concern.


  4.1  The general thrust of policy as outlined in the policy commentary of the bill is deregulatory. The proposed policies will lead to increased concentrations of ownership across all media sectors and increased cross ownership. Evidence from the UK and the USA, plentifully available in published form, shows that concentration of ownership leads to a reduction in diversity and range of content, as the companies involved head for the maximum returns from their investments. We do not think this benefits the public, nor the working conditions of NUJ members.

  4.2  To avoid a reduction in diversity we consider that current limits on cross ownership and concentration should, at least, be properly enforced. We do not consider that democratic debate is served by allowing local authorities, religious groups and advertising agencies to own TV stations. ITV licences should remain separate, as should local commercial licences and the ITV news contract should be the subject of a separate franchise, with no single company holding a controlling interest.

  4.3  In our view the presumption that a loosening of ownership regulations should take place runs counter to the evidence. This part of the policy making process should be of particular concern to the Joint Committee.


  5.1  This legislative process has, in the NUJ's view, been driven by a partial view of what should be the underlying principles governing the development of communications. Whilst we welcome the continuance of commitments to public service, we consider that the framework created in OFCOM will militate against their sustenance and development. If there is to be unified regulation, it needs to be regulation, which promotes a positive extension of the public interest in mass communications, rather than sectional commercial interests. Commerce is, of course, vital to the development of communications, but it should not, as is the case in the draft Bill be allowed to dominate future developments at the expense of media freedom and diversity.

  This is our initial response to the draft Bill, a more detailed submission will be forwarded as part of the ongoing consultation.

June 2002

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