Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Public Voice

  1.  Public Voice is a voluntary sector network established to support, defend and protect public service broadcasting in all its forms, now, and in the future. It represents the interests of voluntary and community organisations, the causes they serve and their constituents. Public Voice campaigns to ensure that communications reform is led by public interest objectives such as plurality of voice, impartiality and objectivity in news, diversity and quality of content, right across the market.

  2.  The Public Voice steering committee is made up of a number of agencies with particular expertise in the voluntary and media sectors (Broadcasting Support Services, Campaign for Quality Television, Community Media Association, the Media Trust, Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project [3WE], and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer). In the two years since its founding, Public Voice has built up an impressive list of supporters from the voluntary and community sector. Our current supporters and members include: NCVO, The Kings Fund, World Wildlife Fund, RSPB, NIACE, CAFOD, Age Concern England, Childline, the Dyslexia Institute, RNIB, RNID, Oxfam, CSV Media and the British Deaf Association.

  3.  Public Voice has commented in detail on a number of recent policy proposals and consultation documents including: the Government's White Paper on Communications Reform; Professor Cave's Radio Management Spectrum Review; the BBC's proposals for new digital services; ITC consultations on restrictive service licenses and on cross promotion; the Government's draft digital action plan; the Towers Perrin scoping report on OFCOM; the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee's inquiry into communications reform; and the Government's consultations on media ownership and spectrum allocation. We are also represented on the stakeholder and market preparation groups established as part of the Government's digital action plan programme.

  4.  We welcome the opportunity to give written evidence to the joint committee. Our response concentrates on the following areas:

    —  The objectives for the new communications regulator OFCOM

    —  Content regulation

    —  Public Service broadcasting

    —  Consumer panel

5.  SUMMARY OF OUR RECOMMENDATIONS

  5.1  The meeting and safeguarding of citizens' interests should be the primary objective of OFCOM and at the heart of its functioning. The bill should establish the following definition of citizenship.

    We are all citizens of the global information society with interests in a fair and just society in which fundamental human rights such as the right to freedom of expression and freedom of thought are recognised. We need access to a wide range of information so that we can be informed, educated and enabled to play a full part in this society.

  5.2  In recognising the importance of citizenship issues and placing them at the heart of its operations OFCOM must ensure that the new regulatory regime provides communications rights to all citizens; and enables citizens' access to high quality and diverse content through a range of platforms and services, to help them fulfil their potential in the information society. Without access to the different voices and stories of one's own culture it is very difficult for individuals to understand their own society and to play a full part in it.

  5.3  We call for the Content Board should establish an ongoing and well resourced citizenship project to define citizens' interests in the information society; identify areas of weak provision; identify new areas for innovation in public service; create partnerships with the public service broadcasters, community media, Government departments and other relevant parties.

  5.4  We support the recognition in Clause 4 (5) of the Bill of the need to promote the interests of all persons who are citizens of the European Union. The Bill should also recognise that to play a full part as citizens of the European Union our UK citizens need to understand the different cultures of the European continent. This requires more European content and information on our screens, both in programmes for adults and for young audiences.

  5.5  The bill must strengthen and protect public service content—and use it as the driver for extending information services across other platforms, enabling greater engagement, interaction and debate. It must offer people both access to the content by others and to the means to generate content, individually and collectively and comprehensively cover the range of levels of content and engagement from very local to international. OFCOM must also seek continual innovation in public service offerings, especially in "true" converged services.

  5.6  The decision to define public service broadcasting in the legislation is one of the key aspects of the bill. The definition of PSB in the legislation is a cornerstone of protection for citizens' interests and must remain as a strong benchmark for measuring performance. The definition of public service broadcasting still needs further development. In particular we call for international issues and science to be included in the public service remit returning to the government's intention in the White Paper. The individual remits for public service broadcasters must be clearly but sensitively defined in regulation, recognising the particular nature of each broadcaster, and following the clear general public service remit (amended as we propose above).

  5.7  OFCOM should establish a Content Board Stakeholders Group—with representation from across the public, private and voluntary sectors—to work in detail on the development of policies and practice in relation to content and citizenship issues.

  5.8  OFCOM must demand and support innovation and diversity in the broadcasting industry both through additional funding and through reservation of spectrum. This is a fast-moving industry and good regulation should push the boundaries and increase opportunities for creativity, and for new forms of public service and public access. Such services should be available at local, regional and national levels.

6.  THE OBJECTIVES FOR OFCOM

  6.1  A strong single regulator for the communications industry is welcome but OFCOM must have sufficient powers to do its job properly—clearly laid out in legislation—and it must use them well. This can be done in a way which meets the interests of both broadcasters and public. In France for example where legislation contains detailed demands both in terms of investment and programme content there is a vibrant, successful and well resourced industry. The principles of freedom of communication and expression should be at the very foundation of OFCOM's work, this is necessary to our democratic process and is something the OFCOM board should protect and promote.

  6.2  One of OFCOM's first objectives should be to ensure diversity both in terms of broadcasting supply and of operators in order to protect and promote the principles of diversity and plurality which the Government has put forward.

  6.3  OFCOM's duty to promote and protect the interests of both citizens and consumers should be enshrined in statute. The Government makes much of the importance of citizens but the draft legislation doesn't define their interests or show practical ways in which they can be protected. In 6.4 below we suggest a way in which this duty can be clearly defined in the legislation in order to secure protection for viewers and listeners as citizens of the global information society, with the right and need for access to a wide range of information so that they can be informed, educated and enabled to play a full part in society.

  6.4  In Clause 3 (1) insert new clause (a) on line 28

    "to promote the interests of citizens and consumers with regard to communications"

and renumber all subsequent sub clauses

  6.5  We support the recognition in Clause 4 (5) of the Bill of the need to promote the interests of all persons who are citizens of the European Union. The Bill should also recognise that to play a full part as citizens of the European Union our UK citizens need to understand the different cultures of the European continent. This requires more European content and information on our screens, both in programmes for adults and for young audiences.

  6.6  OFCOM must encourage and require sufficient investment in high quality programme making and monitor levels of investment in public service broadcasting alongside the programming itself. This will help the UK maintain and strengthen its role as one of the most dynamic broadcasting industries in the world.

  6.7  OFCOM must demand and support innovation in the broadcasting industry. This is a fast moving industry and good regulation should push the boundaries and increase opportunities for creativity, and for new forms of public service and public access. There should be new investment through OFCOM in developing areas such as community media and this should go hand in hand with identification of spectrum for new and innovative public service provision at local, regional and national levels.

7.  CONTENT REGULATION

  7.1  We welcome the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport's statement in a recent presentation at a public meeting hosted by the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, that the Content Board "should be at the heart of OFCOM". For this sentiment to carry any weight the role and responsibilities of the Content Board must be clearly defined in the legislation so that the role of the Content Board is clear to all stakeholders. We would go further than the Secretary of State and suggest that the Content Board should be seen as the "social conscience" of public service broadcasting and the place in which citizens' interests will find a home. More definition is needed to make this a reality.

  7.2  The Content Board's powers and duties should be laid out clearly in the legislation and it must be empowered to represent the public interest on content issues even when such views might conflict with the views or interests of other parts of OFCOM. We suggest the following amendments to the draft bill to clarify the Content Board's powers and duties:

    18 (1) line 1 delete "have such functions as OFCOM" to end of line 5 and replace with the words "operate on behalf of OFCOM on all matters relating to content and content regulation"

and

    in clause 18 (5) line 30 after "functions" insert the words "as the delegated regulator of content for OFCOM"

  7.3  The meeting and safeguarding of citizens interests should be the primary objective of OFCOM and at the heart of its functioning. The economics, competition policy and so on, are among the means by which this can be achieved but citizens interests should be foremost in the minds of those who constitute the OFCOM Board. The Content Board, in this scenario, should not be a place into which citizens' interests are simply hived off but rather a robust defender of citizens interests which would hold the OFCOM Board itself to account on a day to day basis.

  We propose the following addition to clause 18 (2) insert new subclause (c) "functions in relation to the promotion of the rights of all UK citizens to have access to a wide range of information in order to be enabled to play a full part in society"

  7.4  We hope that the joint committee will recognise the importance of citizenship issues and take this opportunity to specifically include them in their deliberations and reporting. Citizens' interests lie first of all, and fundamentally, in human rights. Not only the rights to freedom of information and freedom of expression but also other rights such as those where the media can wrongly intrude, such as the right to privacy and the right not to face discrimination. As our lives become increasingly dominated by the information economy we must recognise the need for a coherent body of universal communication rights to which all citizens are entitled.

  7.5  A proper definition of what is meant by citizenship and citizenship issues should be included in the Bill. We suggest the following principle on which to build this definition:

    We are all citizens of the global information society with interests in a fair and just society in which fundamental human rights such as the right to freedom of expression and freedom of thought are recognised. We need access to a wide range of information so that we can be informed, educated and enabled to play a full part in this society.

  7.6  The Content Board must have a duty to consult properly with the wider community. It should establish a proper consultative process and a system of representative panels with bodies representing the public interest—including a range of voluntary and community groups representing interests from across the community (age, race, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion) and also taking account of differing regional concerns and the different needs of people in urban and rural areas. The reports and recommendations of these bodies should be published and made widely available.

  7.7  The interests of citizens are so important and so bound up with the Content Board's role that we believe many of these issues must be discussed now whilst the structures and functions of OFCOM are being defined. These matters are far too fundamental to be left to a small group of OFCOM staff and board members to decide. We recommend that the Secretary of State should have the power to appoint 3 members of the Content Board from outside OFCOM to ensure that a wide range of public interests are represented on the Content Board. The Content Board must be large enough to have a membership which is broad enough to represent all relevant walks of society and geographical parts of the UK.

  7.8  It is clear that the existing regulators have an essential contribution to make in defining the purpose, functions and mode of operation of the Content Board but this should not be done by the regulators working alone. If citizens issues are to be effectively included then there also needs to be greater involvement at this formative stage. We propose the establishment of a wider consultative group of stakeholders known as the Content Board Stakeholders Group. This would provide a small but diverse group of concerned parties to work with the regulators on the development of policies and practice in relation to the Content Board and citizens interests and further consider the function of the Citizenship project outlined below.

  7.9  In particular we recommend that the Content Board should establish an ongoing and well resourced citizenship project in partnership with academic bodies to: define citizens' interests in the information society; identify areas of weak provision; identify new areas for innovation in public service, and create partnerships with the public service broadcasters, with community media, with govt departments and other relevant parties to address these issues.

  7.10  The Content Board should cover all matters to do with the information, education, knowledge and understanding which are necessary to encourage full and meaningful participation in the global information society. This means commenting not only on the content that is available, but also on key areas of content that are not sufficiently covered—"market failure".

  7.11  It is very important that the Content Board is distinct and separate from the Consumer Panel which should not deal with content issues. Any blurring of the boundaries would not be in the public interest.

  7.12  The Content Board should have a policy brief to examine the development of "true" converged PSB services, so that PSB content can be made available in a variety of ways enabling greater interaction and participation. Broadcast content should be the "front page" of a wider and deeper engagement with subject matter on a variety of platforms and formats.

  7.13  The Content Board should commission research and lead discussion of how citizens can most benefit from the convergence of other information services around public service broadcast content.

  7.14  Through the work of the Content Board OFCOM must be proactive in regulating content, actively monitoring broadcasters performance against their annual statements of promise and their public service remits. What will constitute a "serious failure" to meet the remit must be made clear and there should be no easy get-out for broadcasters by pleading "economic circumstances"; it must be clear what that the penalties will be and how they can be invoked.

8.  PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING

  8.1  Since 1990 there has been substantial refocusing of general factual programming to emphasise popular "consumer" issues at the expense of broader and more complex subject matter. The total output of factual programmes on developing countries by the channels 1-4 dropped by almost 50 per cent in the ten years to 1999. While the number of hours has recovered somewhat since then, this recovery is almost entirely due to the expansion of entertainment and consumer formats—such as "Reality TV" and holiday travel programmes—at the expense of in-depth programming providing "information and education" on developing countries, which continues to fall. There has been less innovation in drama and over-concentration on both domestic and international repeats. Recent ITC research shows the range and diversity of programming in peak time has narrowed in the last four years, with entertainment displacing serious programming. And there is a widening gap between the range of output of commercial broadcasters and public service broadcasters placing PSB companies under pressure to narrow their own range in order to boost ratings.

  8.2  As well as the decrease in the diversity of programmes outlined above we are experiencing another form of communications revolution. The move to digital is bringing hundreds of new channels, and potentially vital opportunities to strengthen the communications environment. But more channels do not necessarily mean more quality, and already we have seen disappointment from those viewers who can afford the move to digital when they view the new channels on offer. Meanwhile there are those who cannot afford or who cannot access the new digital services and who face a loss of quality as budgets and programmes drift from analogue to digital.

  8.3  The opportunity exists not only to protect existing public services but also to promote and nurture new, diverse and innovative public services at local, regional and national level. The implications of the digital revolution must be considered hand in hand with the regulation of public service broadcasting and steps must be taken to ensure the future provision of a wide range of public service programming to all, free at the point of delivery.

  8.4  The definition of public service broadcasting will be an important touchstone. We disagree with the ITC's suggestion in its evidence to the Joint Scrutiny Committee that the general remit for public service broadcasters should be simplified. The decision to define public service broadcasting in the legislation is one of the key aspects of the bill and must be protected. The definition of PSB in the legislation is a cornerstone of protection for citizens' interests and must remain as a strong benchmark for measuring performance. OFCOM can not be an effective regulator unless the standards by which it is regulating are clear and comprehensive.

  8.5  The definition of public service broadcasting still needs development. International issues and science, for example, should be included in the public service remit returning to the government's intention in the White Paper. It is mere historical accident that these were not in the BBC Agreement from which the government decided to import its definition. Far from hampering broadcasters we think these requirements will support and focus the public service broadcasters in their efforts to produce innovative and high quality programming to inform and educate their audiences.

  8.6  We support the following amendment in relation to the definition of public service broadcasting already offered in evidence submitted by our colleagues at the Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project (3WE).

  Amend Clause 181.5(e), inserting "and international" before "and social issues".

  8.7  The individual remits for public service broadcasters must be clearly but sensitively defined in regulation, recognising the particular nature of each broadcaster, and following the clear general public service remit (amended as we propose above). We believe that it is both practical and realistic to require such definition, and again would refer the Committee to the example set by France where each public service broadcaster has a very clearly defined remit and detailed obligations in relation to both original production and investment.

  8.8  Whilst we often emphasise the need for "enforcement" we are equally clear that this sector requires a regulator as "innovator", encouraging and enabling new forms of provision in public service which use the potential of the new technologies to the full benefit of the citizen. The Content Board should enable the "hot-housing" of new public services, and be empowered to bring other parts of OFCOM along with proposals to establish new services, including reserving spectrum and making it available at less than market rates.

9.  CONSUMER PANEL

  9.1  We welcome the proposals in relation to the Consumer Panel but believe its role should be clearly defined and laid out in legislation so that there is no confusion or unnecessary overlap with the role of the Content Board.

  9.2  The Consumer Panel should be concerned with issues such as access, choice of service, price and value for money.

  9.3  There may be times when the Consumer Panel wishes to comment on issues relating to content, particularly for example in relation to questions of taste and decency. But any more detailed content on the type, nature and range of content should remain the province of the Content Board.

  9.4  Representatives from the Consumer Panel should meet regularly with the Content Board to discuss content related issues which are of concern to the Panel, so that, where appropriate, the Content Board may consider such matters in the course of its work.

  9.5  The Consumer Panel must be large enough to have a membership which is broad enough to represent all relevant walks of society and geographical parts of the UK.

10.  CONCLUSION

  Effective content regulation could pave the way for a new golden age of UK broadcasting, with broadcasters and programme makers properly resourced and citizens and consumers properly represented. It should be grounded in firm foundations based on fundamental human rights. But it must also be innovative, ambitious and inspirational such that the promised multiplicity of choice and content might become as diverse as our citizens, nations and communities.

Public Voice

June 2002


 
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