Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Evangelical Alliance

  The Evangelical Alliance (EA) welcomes The Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill invitation to participate in your scrutiny of this draft piece of legislation, which was published on 7 May 2002. The EA has responded in a way, which we trust, will help the Committee in their deliberations.

  We have concentrated our memorandum on the areas that are of greatest interest to the EA and its membership. These areas include the five main areas upon which the Joint Committee will be focusing its inquiry.

  The EA will also be responding directly to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport by their closing date of 2 August 2002.

  This memorandum has been organised in a way that conforms to the areas of the committee's work.

INTRODUCTION TO THE EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE'S COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS

  The EA is pleased with a number of the points that the Government has focused upon including:

    —  a quality remit for all public service broadcasters under OFCOM, including the BBC—Clause 181;

    —  placing the consumer first—Clauses 96 and 97;

    —  strengthening of content rules including the promotion and protection of local/regional content—Clauses 194 and 195;

    —  framework for the quality of news provision—Clause 191;

    —  promoting the culture of discussion and argument for a democratic society—Clause 213;

    —  ensuring a plurality of radio ownership especially at the local/regional level.—The Policy 9.6.2;

    —  controls to prevent the abuse of both economic and non-economic power—Regulatory Impact Assessment D1 and D2.

  The EA believes in there being a wide range of quality Christian/religious broadcasting, both music and speech, in the UK. This should continue to include Thoughts for the Day on both Radio 2 and 4, Sunday morning religious programmes on local radio stations, "Son of God" and "Songs of Praise" on BBC TV, "Sunday Morning" and "My Favourite Hymns" on ITV. The new Communications Bill should also encourage an environment where broadcasters will find it conducive to apply for licences to operate quality radio and television stations that are founded on the Christian ethos.

  In an interview published in the April/May edition of Plain Truth, Alan Bookbinder (Department Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC) said, "It seems to me there is no reason why a responsible, well-intentioned, Christian broadcaster shouldn't have a role. Broadcasters can only justify their existence by appealing to the audience. The BBC has to satisfy our licence fee-payers and presumably a commercial, Christian station would have to satisfy either its advertisers or its subscription base, without stepping over any of the boundaries."

  In December 2001, John Battle MP, the Prime Minister's spokesperson on religious matters, said to the Church of England Newspaper that, "We live in a very secular culture and a strongly pro-actively secular media, so there isn't much space left for the truth and life of faith communities to be expressed and revealed. So we end up with a very tabloid view of what it means to be a Christian or a Muslim."

THE PROPOSED STRUCTURE, FUNCTIONS, DUTIES AND POWERS OF OFCOM

  Parliament should have a permanent Joint Parliamentary Committee on Broadcasting and Communications to which OFCOM should report an annual basis. The Bill should set up the post of Communications Ombudsman, in order to investigate any complaints against OFCOM. The Communications Ombudsman should report to the Joint Parliamentary Committee.

  Clause 144 covering the OFCOM/BBC relationship should be clarified to see that OFCOM has oversight for:

    —  maximising the use of broadcasting spectrum by both the BBC and independent broadcasters so as to provide for the greatest viewer/listener choice; and

    —  the final arbiter for complaints from viewers and listeners.

THE PROPOSED FRAMEWORK FOR THE PROMOTION OF A DYNAMIC AND COMPETITIVE COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA MARKET IN THE UNITED KINGDOM

  The current restrictions on religious broadcasting, enshrined in the 1990 Broadcasting Act, disqualify certain categories of people/organisations in relation to radio and TV licences have been brought forward to Clause 232 of the Draft Communications Bill is titled, "Removal of religious disqualification for certain purposes". Those concerned are:

    (a)  a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a religious nature;

    (b)  a body which is controlled by a body falling within paragraph (a) or by two or more such bodies taken together;

    (c)  a body which controls a body falling within paragraph (a);

    (d)  a body corporate which is an associate of a body corporate falling within paragraph (a), (b) or (c);

    (e)  a body corporate in which a body falling within any of paragraphs (a) to (d)

is a participant with more than a 5 per cent interest;

    (f)  an individual who is an officer of a body falling within paragraph (a);

and

    (g)  a body which is controlled by an individual falling within paragraph (f) or by two or more such individuals taken together.

  The proposed exclusions do not affect individual people because of race, ethnicity, or gender but only those who hold office in a church or religious charity. These people appear to be targeted to lose "Freedom of Expression" and "Freedom from Discrimination" on grounds of religion. These proposed exclusions call into question Britain's signing of the UN Charter, with Article 55 promoting "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".

  There is also the question of who is an "officer" of a body whose objectives are wholly or mainly of a religious nature. Is it only a cleric or Chief Executive of a religious charity? Does it also cover a member of Parochial Church Council or a consultant to a religious charity? There does not appear to be a definition of these terms in Appendix I of the Explanatory Notes (Cm 5508-II).

  These restrictions, as they were worded in the 1990 Act, appear to have already forced the regulator to interpret them in a wider context, effecting non-religious companies. It appears that a commercial company that wanted to provide a Gospel music service is at a disadvantage as compared to a station providing jazz, classical, country, rock or pop music. Copies of correspondence with the Radio Authority in 1999 show this to be the case. [1.Word document—Digital Sound Services—Martin Campbell—29 July 1999 and 2. Adobe Acrobat document—Digital Sound Services—reply from RA—4 August 1999.]

  As the Bill is currently drafted, only if OFCOM regulators are satisfied with an application, can they deem it appropriate to lift the disqualification (Regulatory Impact Assessment D9 and referred to in 2.1.1.1), but only for:

    —  local analogue AM/FM stations (commercial or access radio);

    —  restricted service licences (RSL);

    —  local digital (DAB) sound programme licences;

    —  digital additional service licences;

    —  satellite/cable sound licences (Radio Licensable Content Services);

    —  satellite/cable TV licences;

    —  local digital TV programme service licences;

    —  TV restricted service licences.

  The Draft Bill at present applies restrictions about the ownership of radio DAB multiplexes by religious organisations. Religious broadcasters could equally express the same concerns, about access by certain programme service providers to secular owned multiplexes.

  The controls in the Draft Bill to prevent the abuse of both economic and non-economic power are of special interest to local Christian radio broadcasters. The owners of a DAB multiplex act as the "gatekeeper" to the range of programme services on their multiplex and may not keen to see a Gospel music programme or a Christian teaching/ information station on their multiplex.

  The Government has already accepted that the disqualification of religious organisations from the ownership of local digital radio licences is an anomaly and that it is proposing to remove it under the Draft Communications Bill (Clause 232 (1) and 1990 Act Schedule 2 Part II 2(2) c revised). This anomaly "locked-out" religious broadcaster from providing programme services on local digital (DAB) multiplexes that have already been licensed. There are not any religious broadcasters on any of the 38 radio local DAB multiplexes that have already been advertised or can they be on the seven new local DAB multiplexes that will be operational before the new Bill becomes an Act.

  There is therefore an excellent case that as compression technology improves and DAB multiplex operators reduce the bit rates on some of their existing programme services that OFCOM should be required to tell the multiplex operators that they must offer religious broadcasters the first option of adding these formats to the DAB multiplexes that were already broadcasting prior to the change in the law. It should be noted that the BBC has already reduced the bit rate of its national services and of World Service on its national DAB multiplex so as to fit in more programme services.

  The definition of a "general multiplex licence" and a "multiplex service" appear to have been worded so as they might apply to the developing DRM (Digital Radio Mondial—Digital AM) technology as well as to DAB multiplexes—Clause 132 (10). Currently it appears that analogue AM and DRM might be able to use the same frequency on short, medium and long wave. There is also the possibility that this developing technology may be able to broadcast an information channel.

  A religious local AM station, if the "multiplex" definitions in Clause 132 (10) were applied, could find that they are unable to own their own broadcasting transmitter in the DRM age.

  The EA believes that the current ownership rules governing the three analogue National Independent Radio (INR) services should continue to apply (Broadcasting Act 1990 Clauses 98-103), but that there should be no confusion between national analogue licensing procedures and those for National DAB programme sound licensing.

  Current T- DAB (Terrestrial—Digital Audio Broadcasting) operates on 217 -230 MHz (Band III) and there are plans to use 1452—1466 MHz (L-Band). There are currently two national digital multiplexes—one BBC and one Independent radio—each able to broadcast at least 10 services. As compression technology improves and multiplex operators reduce the bit rates on some of their existing programme services, it may be possible to fit in more services. It should be noted that the BBC has already reduced the bit rate of its national services and of World Service on its national DAB multiplex.

  There should be no restrictions on commercial companies providing music services, such as contemporary Christian/Gospel music, on a National Digital Multiplex. There is no financial bidding process for National Digital Programme Sound licences, unlike for analogue INR licences. The three INR stations simulcast their analogue programmes on three of the 10 current T-DAB national commercial radio channels, as well as via Sky Digital audio channels.

  The L-Band frequencies 1467-1492 MHz were allocated at the 1992 World Administrative Radio communications Conference to S-DSB (Satellite—Digital Sound Broadcasting). WorldSpace (www.worldspace.com) use L-Band for their broadcasts covering Asia, Africa and Europe. These broadcasts, of over 40 digital stations including BBC World Service, can be received using AM/FM/S-DSB portable radios in the UK. The radios cost about £150. A similar technology, using S-Band, is broadcasting over the USA delivering two services each delivering over 70 digital stations direct to cars and homes (www.xmradio.com and www.sirius.com).There are plans, by at least two corporations, for European dedicated S-DSB services.

  The provision of Access Radio, as laid out in Clause 179, is fully supported by the EA. We trust that the 15 station trial organised by the Radio Authority will provide evidence to enable the Secretary of State to lay a draft of an order before Parliament and that it may be approved by both Houses to enact the formation of a third tier of non-profit distributing Access Radio within the United Kingdom by OFCOM.

  We agree that OFCOM should be given powers under Clause 236 to make grants to Access Radio providers. These OFCOM grants should not be allowed to be used to replace any income shortfalls encountered by these radio operators.

  The EA understands that certain people are worried that the owners of broadcasting stations could use their licences to their propagate their own views and opinions, but we believe that content rules are the best way to deal with these concerns, whether they be religious or other views.

  The EA supports the formation of a trade organisation to represent Independent Christian broadcasting organisations within the United Kingdom.

The EA believes that such a body could help the Government in the delivery of a responsible light-touch regulation (Clause 5), whilst safeguarding broadcasting standards. [See also comments on content regulation under 3.1]

  The EA is pleased to see a greater flexibility for local radio licences.

The Government in their Policy document that accompanies the Draft Bill says:

    —  8.4.1.5 OFCOM will continue to have a duty to include conditions in local licences intended to secure the character of the service as proposed by the licence holder and to ensure that national licences comply with the basic format as advertised. In the case of local licences, OFCOM may agree to a departure from the character of the service if:

    —  the departure would not substantially alter the character of the service;

    —  the departure would not narrow the range of programmes available;

    —  the departure, in the case of local licences, would be conducive to maintaining or promoting fair competition; or

    —  there is evidence of significant support for the change.

  The last two points are new factors for OFCOM to consider. The Government accepts the case for further relaxation to make it easier for licence holders to respond to local audience expectations and demand. In well-developed major markets, OFCOM will therefore be empowered to allow format changes to mainstream stations, to facilitate competition.

  Would Clause 211 enable companies, to possibly incorporate some contemporary Gospel music into a mainstream station? Would it allow for a station to change format provided it was increasing listener choice? What is the definition for a "major market"? It does not seem to be in the definition of terms in Appendix I of the Explanatory Notes (Cm 5508-II).

  Current law discriminates unjustly against individuals, who are members of Christian churches and other religious faiths, and the organisations for whom they work. The EA therefore urges that:

    (a)  All restrictions on an individual who is an officer of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a religious nature, (Clause 232 and Broadcasting Act 1990 Schedule 2 Part II 2.—(1) f) should be removed.

    (b)  the general disqualifications under the Broadcasting Act 1990 Schedule 2 Part II 2.—(1) to (3) on religious bodies holding broadcasting licences should be removed for:

      —  Local analogue AM/FM licences (commercial or access radio).

      —  Restricted service licences (RSL).

      —  Local digital (DAB) sound programme licences.

      —  Digital additional service licences.

      —  Satellite/cable sound licences (Radio Licensable Content Services).

      —  Satellite/cable TV licences.

      —  Local digital TV programme service licences.

      —  TV restricted service licences.

  Restrictions should only be imposed if OFCOM can show that the body corporate, or any individuals concerned with the body corporate, are disqualified persons under existing Wireless Telegraphy Act, UK Company Law or are disqualified persons from broadcasting within another EEA legal jurisdiction. We would suggest that such a change would enable the United Kingdom to meet its obligations under UN Charter Article 55 promoting "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".

    (c)  The general disqualifications under the Broadcasting Act 1990 Schedule 2 Part II 2.—(1) to (3) should not be applied to:

      —  National digital (DAB) sound programme licence providing a music service, including Christian/Gospel/religious music. The definition of a music service being "a sound programme that consists of a minimum of 80 per cent music within any given four hour period, excluding news, public service announcements (PSA) and advertising/sponsorship;"

  Restrictions should only be imposed if OFCOM can show that the body corporate, or any individuals concerned with the body corporate, are disqualified persons under existing Wireless Telegraphy Act or UK Company Law or are disqualified persons from broadcasting within another EEA legal jurisdiction. We would suggest that such a change would enable the United Kingdom to meet its obligations under UN Charter Article 55 promoting "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion".

    (d)  A body corporate, as defined under Broadcasting Act 1990 Schedule 2 Part II 2.—(1) a-d, who is also the holder of a local (DAB) programme sound license, should be able to participate in the ownership of a local digital multiplex licence. The EA's recommended option would be for maximum holding of 40 per cent by any such body corporate.

    (e)  OFCOM be required to make local DAB multiplex operators offer religious broadcasters the first option of adding additional formats to the DAB multiplexes, these stations were "locked-out" due to an anomaly in the 1996 Act. As compression technology improves and multiplex operators reduce the bit rates on some of their existing programme services, there will be space to fit in additional services.

    (f)  DRM (www.drm.org) broadcasting licences should be treated on the same basis as analogue AM licences.

  The existing prohibitions on the non-European Economic Area (EEA) ownership of broadcasting licences will be removed (Policy 9.3.1 and Regulatory Impact Assessment D8), thus allowing American companies to buy up UK radio and television stations, without there appearing to be any movement by United States or other countries to allow for reciprocal ownership arrangements.

  The EA believes that, while such a policy could help invigorate the broadcasting and communications industry in the UK, that the fifth commandment of statecraft has been broken namely, "Never give up unilaterally what could be used as a bargaining chip. Make your adversaries give up something for everything they get." (Nixon's Ten Commandment's of Statecraft—James C Humes—Scribner 1997)

  The proposals relating to the use and management of the radio spectrum are well balanced. As the broadcasters pay for their broadcasting licences, we trust there will not be a implementation of spectrum charging for use by public service broadcasters whether they be the BBC, commercial or access broadcasters.

  The proposed competition powers of OFCOM and their relationship to the powers of the Office of Fair Trading, the Competition Commission and the European Commission appear to be well balanced. A permanent Joint Parliamentary Committee on Broadcasting and Communications needs to keep an ongoing watch over these relationships and to report regularly to Parliament.

  The striking of the correct balance between the wider interests of the consumer and the provider appears to be about right within the draft Bill..

THE PROPOSED STATUTORY FRAMEWORK FOR CONTENT REGULATION

  The EA believes that the regulator, OFCOM and its Content Board (Clause 17), should do all it can to encourage the diversity of programme content by media owners, including religious broadcasters. This would help encourage the development of the British Christian broadcasting industry that has already proved, against the odds, that they are capable of producing quality programmes using indigenous talent and reflecting the broad spectrum of spirituality.

  There is a long-standing tradition amongst the Christian community to "partner" with an organisation to support various activities including the publishing of books. Financial support for Christian broadcasting channels or radio stations either by subscribing to receive a TV service or by giving a gift to the radio station comes within the same tradition. The use of carefully regulated advertising by Christian broadcasters for the purposes of raising support for the transmission and programme making costs should be allowed by OFCOM.

  When a viewer switches on their television they may be, unwittingly, be inviting an image of a person, or situation, into their home. Had that person arrived at the front door they might not have been allowed to enter the house. It is therefore incumbent upon the advertiser to enter the viewer's home, as an invited guest who would be invited to return, not barred forever. We believe that this standard should be used by the OFCOM to govern the content of all advertising on television and this standard to be implemented through their Codes of Advertising Standards and Practice. The EA believes that the standards already used in radio are an excellent benchmark for any future regulation of advertising by OFCOM.

  Clause 212 (7) rightly says "that religious programmes do not involve—(a) any improper exploitation of the susceptibilities of the audience for such a programme; or (b) any abusive treatment of religious views and beliefs of those belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination." This clause, and the broadcasting codes developed from it, should be worded in such a way as to not inhibit or stop discussion by faith communities of their beliefs. Nor should the clause be used to curtail comment on news stories. In a democracy free and fair discussion, without in sighting violence or hatred to racial or religious communities is healthy. Jesus showed a love and care for others without condemnation, including the prostitute and the tax collector, and the EA believes that religious broadcasters must do the same and that OFCOM's broadcasting codes should enshrine these principals so as not to inhibit or stop free and fair discussion.

  While the EA is disappointed to find that OFCOM is to exercise a "lighter touch" than the regulators it is to replace and that terrestrial broadcasters will self-regulate, we are pleased to see that all the mainstream public service TV channels will have to conform to a "public service remit" which includes detailed requirements on "a suitable quantity and range of programmes on educational matters and dealing with matters of specialist interest, religion and social issues." (Clause 181(5) e).

  The evidence from the BBC, which has hitherto been the only genuine self-regulator, is that religious broadcasting can suffer. Whilst the total output on BBC 1 and 2 has increased by 50 per cent in the last ten years, religious output has fallen by 33 per cent. A parallel decline has not happened on ITV and Channel 4 because they have had to fulfil an ITC obligation to screen a given number of hours of religious programmes each week. Our pessimism about the likely consequences of self-regulation are reinforced by the record of Independent Local Radio stations. In 1990 they were freed from a requirement to carry religious programmes, yet by 1999, only 52 of the then 223 Independent Radio stations broadcast religious programmes, totalling 90 hours out of a total of 35,000 hours put out by these stations.

  Our second concern is that too many programmes contain offensive material, including blasphemy and profanity, gratuitous sex and violence, and stereotypes of racial and religious groups. We do not see censorship as the solution but a new climate of responsible creativity in which programme makers take more account of norms and values in the community rather than seeking to attract high ratings by shocking their audiences.

  We believe that some of these concerns can be lessened if OFCOM uses the powers in Clause 18 (5) and (6) to establish a committee or panel of the Content Board specifically to oversee the range and quality of religious programming on all radio and television.

  We believe that the ability of the elderly and housebound consumers, for whom religious programmes remain important because they are no longer able to get out to their local churches, must be safeguarded.

  The EA supports John Battle MP's view that, "we live in a very secular culture and a strongly pro-actively secular media" and therefore we need to support OFCOM in all it can do to encourage broadcasters to produce quality religious programmes and programmes with positive values that are at are common to Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other faith communities.

  In the light of the Bill's proposals for self-regulation (Clause 180) the EA will support the formation of a trade organisation to represent Independent Christian broadcasting organisations within the United Kingdom. The EA believes that such a body could help OFCOM and its Content Board in the regulation and delivery of a responsible religious broadcasting for a British, and European, audience.

THE PLACE OF NATIONS, REGIONS, LOCALITIES, COMMUNITIES AND INTEREST GROUPS IN THE PROPOSED FRAMEWORK

  The EA supports the emphasis given to nations, regions, localities, communities and interest groups in the proposed Bill. The safeguarding of local/regional news and its impartiality (Clauses 191, 194, 195, 213) is especially welcomed. We believe that this impartiality must include the clear reporting of religious matters.

  It must be the key task of OFCOM when implementing this legislation to see that throughout the whole nation there is an extension of viewer and listener choice, including Christian broadcasting on both mainstream and specialist stations/channels.

THE BALANCE IN THE PROPOSALS BETWEEN CLEAR STATUTORY PROVISION AND A FUTURE PROOFING IN THE LIGHT OF TECHNOLOGICAL, MARKET AND SOCIAL CHANGE.

  The balance between clear statutory provision and a future proofing in the light of technological change appears well thought out and the final Bill should include mention of the development of DRM.

  The EA believes that broadcasters, should reflect all responsible opinions.

Some forms of social change have brought both social and financial costs on the whole national community. It is therefore essential that quality responsible broadcasting, including Christian/religious broadcasting, needs to be at the heart of our nation.

  We trust that this memorandum on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance is of help to the Joint Committee in the formulation of the report by the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Bill.


 
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