Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom


  1.1  The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) was founded in 1979 to promote accountability, diversity and plurality in mass communications. The Campaign works closely with trade unions representing media and communications professionals and with them has been organising a series of conferences and public meetings on the Communications Bill around the country. We also work with public interest groups, trade unions, academics and individuals inside and outside the media. One particular strand of our work has been to track and analyse the distorting impact which excessive media concentration can have on the democratic process, and on broader social, cultural and economic activities. Our responses to previous consultations on communications regulation are available at

  1.2  We have restricted our comments below to key concerns and recommendations in line with the Joint Committee's request. We welcome this opportunity to provide written evidence and we hope the Committee will wish to invite us to give oral evidence at its forthcoming hearings.


  2.1  The draft Communications Bill proposes a radical redrawing of media ownership rules which will make them the most liberal in the world and will diminish already weakened levels of protection of plurality and diversity. The Bill extends ``light touch'' regulation in a manner which will roll back regulatory safeguards across the media. By setting up a centralised Office of Communications, reducing public service obligations and loosening ownership regulations, the Bill will sideline quality, accountability and diversity.

  2.2  Over the last 20 years communications policy has shifted decisively towards serving the interests of large commercial companies. From a democratic perspective, it is vital that communications regulation is shaped by and is accountable to wider public interests and that it exercises control against powerful commercial and sectoral interests in order to secure wider public policy objectives. The government needs to revise the Bill if we are to avoid ending up with a media system dominated by powerful commercial companies, such as now exists in the United States.


  3.1  A major part of OFCOM's remit should be the promotion of high quality communications which inform, educate and entertain and which fully reflect the range of opinions and cultures in the UK, across all the major services. All satellite and terrestrial broadcasting licensees should be subject to regulatory requirements (and in some cases economic incentives) to increase the amount of public service programming they carry and OFCOM should have the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing these obligations by including them in detail in the licenses granted.

  3.2  To act in the wider public interest the OFCOM board needs to be constituted by democratic nomination from the devolved institutions and by UK wide associations with a major interest in the media, including, educational bodies, cultural organisations, NGOs and trade unions. In particular the devolved assemblies should have the right to nominate members of OFCOM, to both the main board and any sub-boards.

  3.3  OFCOM's powers to act as a complaints body should be removed and complaints concerning communications media (including the press) should be dealt with by a separate body, independent of OFCOM.


  4.1  The Content board and Consumer panel should be constituted as bodies separate to OFCOM with powers to instruct OFCOM to enforce high quality services and public service commitments across major providers. Both should be representative in composition and accountable in their operations.


  5.1  As the former EC Competition Commissioner Van Miert stated "We cannot use competition rules to govern democratic issues." Communications regulation needs to be based on the recognition that media contribute to pluralism, diversity and quality of information and hence require a separate regulatory structure from that which governs other parts of the national and global economy. Providing OCOM with concurrent powers with the OFT significantly limits how it may evaluate competition matters.

  5.2  In assessing market power through economic considerations, competition law is unable to grasp more complex forms of media power which regulation for media pluralism has traditionally sought to address. Narrow definition of the relevant market may ignore cross-media holdings and the significant media power arising from these. Competition regulation may tolerate monopoly or oligopoly provided that markets are economically speaking "contestable" and so allow conditions that may threaten pluralism. In contrast, the public policy concept underpinning media ownership rules concerns the effects of concentration on the public interest rather than on competition.

  5.3  OFCOM must be granted powers and have clear obligations to secure specific public interests in communications over and above the application of general competition powers.

  5.4  The relaxation of cross-media ownership rules for local radio and newspapers go against the Bill's stated aim to protect pluralism. We believe the proposed changes in local/regional newspaper ownership are made in response to the media industry lobbies, are ill thought out, and should not be implemented until a full competition inquiry has been carried out. We oppose deregulation of ownership in national radio.


  6.1  The Bill should ensure a continued commitment to a public service system in British broadcasting, rather than a commercial system with a few protected public service "remits".

  6.2  The deregulatory thrust of the Bill is best exemplified by the approach to the BBC. Instead of building on the success of publicly funded broadcasting and applying the standards of the BBC across the output of other major providers, the Bill proposes to apply the same deregulatory standards to the BBC as it does to its commercial competitors. The BBC will be "subject to increased external regulation while other public service broadcasters will face reduced external regulation. Thus the BBC's position will be brought closer to other broadcasters" (8.2.1). OFCOM, whose main purpose is to promote economic competition in the media as well as to lift "burdens" in the sector, will be bringing its overwhelmingly commercially orientated outlook to bear on scrutinising the BBC. The effect of this will be to create a regime where the commercial operators, whose interests OFCOM has been created to uphold, will be able to pressurise OFCOM into demanding that the BBC does not compete with them in designated commercially profitable areas, Using the arguments that there is not a 'level playing field' and that publicly funded media should not undermine commercial operations, the BBC's remit in areas such as popular comedy, sport and drama will come under direct pressure, as well as any plans the BBC might have for expanding public services.

  6.3  The BBC should remain separately regulated, particularly given the structure of OFCOM and its stated deregulatory aims.

  6.4  Positive programming requirements and regulation concerning programme standards, advertising and promotions should be strengthened for ITV and Channels 4 and 5. Non-terrestrial broadcasters should be included within the regulatory framework.

  6.5  There should be research into overlap and convergence between digital television and other communications media, particularly the Internet. There should be clearer statements about broadcasters' obligations when using other media, given that these too are potentially part of a public service system.

  6.6  The regional ITV franchises with their obligations to local news, current affairs and general programming must be retained. The Public Service Broadcasting requirements on ITV broadcasters should not be lowered but remain at the same level as the BBC. Licenses must carry requirements to maintain not just local news but programme production in all the main centres of franchise areas, including current affairs and magazine programmes, drama, access programming and cultural coverage. There must be no further consolidation of ITV ownership. The companies must also engage separate advertising sales operations, to prevent market fixing.

  6.7  The ITV news contract should be the subject of a separate franchise, in the same way that the national breakfast franchise is separately awarded. OFCOM should award the licence and ensure directly that it is adequately funded. No single company should be allowed to hold a controlling interest.


  7.1  The remit of the Consumer panel is narrowly drawn and should be expanded. Consumer welfare and protection must include matters such as the separation of editorial and advertising matter in all media and the nature and extent of commercial material in communications.


  8.1  We believe the prohibition on non-EEA ownership of broadcasting licenses should remain.

  8.2  We also believe that the proposal in the European Television Without Frontiers Directive that 50 per cent of programmes broadcast within the European Union should be made by European audio-visual companies should be applied more rigorously. This could be effectively enforced by stating the requirement explicitly in the Bill.

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