Review of Online Forum
In order to gather a wider range of views on the
draft Bill, we commissioned an 'online forum' from the Hansard
and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
The forum allowed participants to post contributions on a web
site (www.commbill.net), which could then be seen and discussed
online by other participants.
The forum ran for a month, from 10 June to 9 July.
By the end of the forum, 373 participants had registered, contributing
222 messages. 136 participants posted messages, which were summarised
weekly by the Hansard Society and reported to us at our meetings.
These summaries were also placed on the forum website.
We decided to focus the forum on five main areas
where we thought a range of views would be particularly helpful:
- The general duties of OFCOM
- Competition and media ownership
- Content regulation
- Public service broadcasting
- The Consumer Panel.
Under each of these areas, we submitted a number
of initial questions. These were then supplemented half-way through
the forum with additional questions on points raised by contributors.
Three members of the Committee also wrote 'think pieces', to encourage
discussion during the first few days.
The Hansard Society sent out an evaluation questionnaire
at the end of the forum. This Annex includes a preliminary discussion
of some of the questionnaire results.
In this Annex, we consider both the process of the
forum and its content. We examine each of the five topic areas
in turn, setting out the main issues found in submissions to the
forum. On process, we consider how the forum has contributed to
our inquiry, and suggest how similar exercises might be used for
future pre-legislative scrutiny.
CONTENT OF THE FORUM
General duties of OFCOM
In discussion of OFCOM's general duties, participants
were concerned to ensure that special interest groups were properly
catered for and social issues reflected in the duties. Contributions
- proposals for Scottish representation on OFCOM's
main Board (and support for increasing the size of the Board);
- a suggestion from the RNIB that OFCOM be under
a duty to promote inclusive design to ensure easier access to
communications services for disabled and elderly people.
- Harry Cohen MP proposed that OFCOM have a duty
to promote race relations.
- David Harrington, of the CMA, suggested that
OFCOM have responsibility for helping to meet Government's social
policy objectives in the communications area.
OFCOM's duty to promote media literacy and the Government's
commitment to diversity were welcomed, but there was some scepticism
about the implementation of the latter. For example, Anver Jeevanjee
from the Cultural Diversity Advisory Group to the Media asked:
How long will it be before the Public Service Media
move away from Gardening and European-style Cooking?
There no consensus over whether the large number
of general duties proposed in the Bill was the right way forward,
or whether an overriding duty should be imposed around the promotion
of competition or the needs of the citizen.
In contrast, there was general agreement that the Bill's use of
the term 'light touch' regulation was inappropriate and that there
were circumstances where the opposite was required
- for example, in regulating the audio quality on digital radio.
Contributors suggested 'appropriate' and 'proportionate' as more
In an exchange on spectrum issues, Jacqui Brookes
of the Federation of Communications Services and James Page agreed
on the importance of the 'optimal' use of spectrum and the need
to take account of social and business benefits as well as economic
Competition and media ownership
While recognising the importance of competition,
a key theme in this discussion was scepticism over competition's
ability to deliver particular social outcomes
- ranging from universally available telecommunications services
to quality television programmes. For example, Nigel Bleasdale
The idea of privatisation was to introduce competition
so that the consumer benefited from increased choice. Now it seems
that the increased choice is available to those in highly populated
(profitable) areas, but for those in the loss-making areas the
communications companies are free to provide no service at all.
A number of more specific points were also raised,
- The importance of OFCOM having expertise in complex
and detailed economic regulation - for example, on tariff publication
to encourage competition.
- The need for OFCOM's fine limits to be increased,
to ensure they have a significant impact on large companies.
- Jason Hawes suggested that there should be enforced
standardisation across consumer satellite receiver equipment,
to allow customers a wider choice of service providers.
- David Harrington of the CMA argued that OFCOM
should monitor the financial stability of communications providers
and protect the interests of customers where companies go into
However, the most comments in the area of competition
came in discussion of media ownership, which was one of the recurring
themes of the forum. There was widespread concern from individuals
and organisations about the impact of allowing non-EEA nationals
to own UK terrestrial TV licences, focusing on the impact on UK
culture and media production. There was also apprehension about
the position of Channel 4 and the BBC in the future.
The comments below give a flavour of the debate:
I am very concerned at the prospect of non-EU companies
being able to either purchase a channel 3 licence themselves or
buy an existing licence holder
I believe there is a danger
that even more output would then be sourced from outside the EU.
This could have a damaging effect on jobs and also on creativity
within the EU.
I feel very strongly that the UK broadcast industry
is unique in the world and we are about to destroy this by selling
out to the highest bidder. My two questions are: why are we so
keen to change a system that works well in the first place? Secondly,
why will we open our industry to the US when they do not reciprocate?
By removing the protection and weakening the regulation
of our commercial broadcasters, the British Government are inviting
the final, total dominance of our own popular culture by that
We must be extremely careful to preserve the quality,
freedoms and independence of our news media ... It is wise therefore
to limit the total number of media channels that could be owned
by any individual (of whatever nationality), on the basis of circulation,
ratings or coverage, to say 10%.
Proposals to open-up certain media licences to religious
organisations also engendered a great deal of debate. The overwhelming
majority of messages were in favour of allowing Christian organisations
to own national radio and TV licences, with contributors arguing
- the quality and quantity of current PSB religious
broadcasting was low and was not proportionate to the size of
the potential audience.
- current public service religious programming
did not reflect the religious diversity of the UK.
- Christian broadcasting would more accurately
reflect the moral outlook of many people than current public service
- religious ownership should be allowed on freedom
of speech grounds.
Participants also suggested that, with the advent
of new technology and consequent reduction in spectrum scarcity,
there may be less of a case for restrictions on ownership due
to spectrum shortages.
This had already been recognised on digital satellite. Robert
Beveridge added the proposal that:
The Committee should also consider the possibility
of recommending placing an extra duty or clause in the licences
to be awarded to religious bodies. This would deal with impartiality
and balance and make explicit rather than implicit the requirements
in this area.
This proposal was put to the Centre for Justice and
Liberty during the Committee's oral evidence and was positively
A number of submissions were in favour of increasing
content regulation in specific areas, such as banning advertising
directed at small children and restricting the use of on-screen
logos and channels' self-promotion.
Nevertheless, there were also arguments for the reduction of content
regulation and increasing reliance on viewer and listener choice.
In particular, Peter Woods was concerned that the ITC did not
allow specialist TV channels to make their own decisions on the
transmission of films which had been rejected or cut by the British
Board of Film Classification.
Contributors were concerned about the effect of heavy
television consumption on social behaviour. Mallory Wober argued
for the importance of measuring the effect programmes have on
audiences, putting forward the BBC's Audience Appreciation Panel
as a good model. The current system of audience research for TV
was also criticised by Vic Davies, who suggested that the BARB
figures were increasingly unreliable in days of multi-set households
and a more complex media landscape, and that:
the current viewing measurement system on its own
will eventually reduce diversity of programme choice, whilst the
cheapening cost of technology will create more and more channels,
that are full of bland rubbish.
On the regulation of internet content, Safo Kordestani
of the Periodical Publishers Association pointed to print self-regulation
under the Committee of Advertising Practice and Press Complaints
Commission as a useful model and noted that both of these bodies
had made provision for online content. In reply, Richard Allan
MP noted out that self-regulation would still leave extensive
amounts of unregulated internet content, and would contrast starkly
with broadcasting regulation as convergence developed - although
David Harrington of the CMA thought this was an issue for the
next Communications Bill in ten years time. However, Claire Milne
(an Internet Watch Foundation Board member) argued that the internet
was already a mass medium, and was sceptical that the industry
would provide self-regulation.
Public Service Broadcasting
There was little agreement on where the BBC should
lie with respect to OFCOM,
with some contributors arguing for independence and others for
a greater degree of regulation. Angela Mills Wade of the British
Internet Publishers Association was concerned about the market
impact of the BBC's internet services. However, in general there
was strong support in the forum for the concept of public service
broadcasting, and most discussion centred on the general PSB remit
and self-regulation for individual broadcasters. Issues included:
- concern over the extent to which public service
broadcasters would make 'public service programmes' such as religious
and schools programming unless explicitly required to do so and
held to account. For example, Nigel Gibbons, an ex-employee of
Central TV, considered how previous legislation had affected religious
The ITV companies were delighted that they could
get away with broadcasting religious programmes in the dog-ends
of TV time, it meant that they could clear their schedules for
those programmes they really wanted to broadcast, programmes which
would increase advertising revenue and audiences.
- Children's writers maintained strongly that regulation
of children's programming should not be relaxed, as such programming
was a crucial part of national culture and identity.
Guy Hallifax argued that:
The ITV Children's budget was cut by 25% last year.
The reason? Children's TV is seen as an expensive luxury. The
problem is that children's TV will never be profitable, and in
a free market, it will reduce to showing only globally profitable
- Naomi Sargant of the National Institute of Adult
Continuing Education, noted that schools educational programming
was to be regulated under tier 2 of the draft Bill, and argued
for the extension of this remit to lifelong learning.
- it was suggested that PSB licensees be required
to consult more extensively with their local communities, in line
with policies put in place by the US Federal Communications Commission
Of all the topics considered in the online forum,
by far the most messages were received pressing for the inclusion
of international issues in the PSB remit. Although the remit includes
a requirement for news and current affairs coverage from around
the world, contributors argued for non-news programming on international
issues. Organised by a coalition of the UK's leading international
charities, the campaign also included an Early Day Motion signed
by nearly 100 MPs and the submission of written evidence to the
Committee. The 48 contributions to the online forum on this issue
were written in individuals' own words and put forward a range
of arguments, including:
- the need to reflect the requirements of citizenship
education in schools and to support the educational programme
of the Department for International Development.
- the events of September 11 underlined the necessity
of broadening viewers' information and understanding about the
world in which they live.
- with increasing globalisation, matters such as
fair trade, asylum, refugee problems and the AIDS crisis should
be the subject of in-depth, fair and unbiased reporting.
- there should be more positive international programming,
rather than just coverage of disasters and emergencies.
- David Bowen-Jones of the TV Production Partnership
described the increasing difficulty of obtaining TV time for programming
"that does not have a commercial impact on narrowly targeted
bands of domestic consumers."
There was general agreement about the importance
of regional programming on PSB.
In particular, there were a number of messages from individuals
in Northern Ireland disappointed with the lack of explicit provision
for Irish language programming,
compared to provisions for Scottish Gaelic and Welsh programming.
Contributors pointed out that the UK Government was a signatory
to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and
Padraig Macgiollachomhaill's submission summarised the debate:
Under the Good Friday Agreement we were promised
that Irish would be supported - was this done with tongue in cheek?
Resources should be allocated forthwith to establish a Broadcasting
Fund for the Irish language in Northern Ireland.
There were also a number of contributions from representatives
of community broadcasters such as Portsmouth Television, Channel
Six Dundee, Bradford Community Broadcasting and Channel M in Manchester.
Community media were seen as providing an important local service
and a forum for community debate, celebrating cultural diversity
and contributing to media literacy. Magz Hall from Resonance 104.4
FM, and Michelle McGuire called for a duty on OFCOM to promote
community media. Contributors argued that community broadcasting
should be funded through a community media fund, classified as
public service broadcasting and receive consequent 'must carry'
status on cable TV.
Participants also proposed that:
- increased priority should be given to community
media when allocating spectrum, with Graham Mole of MyTV Network
concerned that, "Allocation of spectrum to these stations
is at the very bottom of the list of priorities - ranking below
that for the use of microphones at village fetes.".
- Dave Rushton, on behalf of Channel Six Dundee,
thought that the definitions of 'regional' and local' programming
needed to be clarified, suggesting that such definitions be based
on broadcast footprint.
- Mary Dowson of Bradford Community Broadcasting
argued that community radio should be able to receive sponsorship
and other commercial income.
There was substantial support for the establishment
of the Consumer Panel, including proposals to strengthen its role
through setting up sub-committees and fora to represent areas
and enabling it to conduct research.
Steve Green argued that, "the Consumer Panel should be as
powerful as you can make it. They should, as you put it, rock
OFCOM's boat because that is the way to keep OFCOM on the side
of the general public." There was agreement that the Panel
should focus on the interests of individual consumers and small
businesses, and not include representation for large organisations.
David Harrington of the CMA suggested that:
In the interests of democracy the panel should be
made responsible for its own appointments, it should elect its
own chairman, and nobody should serve on it for more than 3(?)
The Hansard Society has now run eleven online fora
for a variety of Parliamentary bodies, such as Select Committees,
All-Party Groups and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
However, commbill.net was the first to be linked to pre-legislative
scrutiny and the first with such explicit ongoing interaction
with a Select Committee. Overall, we feel this has been an extremely
useful exercise, with lessons for future pre-legislative scrutiny.
One of the main difficulties with previous online
fora has been engaging the ongoing interest of Parliamentarians.
The model we have established, with the forum running alongside
our oral evidence sessions and regular summary reports at our
meetings, has successfully overcome this hurdle. In addition,
by including evidence from the forum in our questions to witnesses
and in our final report, we have sought to make the forum an integral
part of our inquiry. This was our intent when we commenced the
exercise, and we feel it has been accomplished. We were encouraged
by the positive response by the 80 forum participants who completed
the evaluation survey, of whom only one was dissatisfied with
the Committee's role.
A key distinction between online fora and traditional
evidence-gathering is the deliberative nature of the online method.
Participants are able to read and respond to comments from other
participants, and those who do not wish to make submissions can
simply watch the debate as it unfolds. 79 of the 222 messages
to the forum were replies to previous submissions. However, there
was less of a sense of 'community building' than in some of the
more personal and 'experiential' online fora, such as those on
domestic violence or flooding, possibly due to the more abstract
nature of the issues being discussed on commbill.net.
As expected, much of the evidence submitted to commbill.net
reflected the same issues found in formal evidence. However, the
balance of evidence was different. It was noticeable that almost
no online submissions were received from larger organisations
(for example, the terrestrial broadcasters, Sky, BT, AOL, etc.).
In responses to the final questionnaire, representatives of the
larger organisations explained that they had followed the discussion
with interest, but felt that they had already had sufficient chance
to put their views using formal written and oral evidence.
In contrast, many smaller organisations such as community
broadcasters and charities found the forum a useful means of contributing
further to the debate. The forum also heard from a wide range
of individuals, both as part of organised campaigns and in their
own right. A number of contributors to the forum welcomed this
new method of evidence-gathering and expressed their enthusiasm
for encouraging the general public to take part in the democratic
Our inquiry received over 200 formal written submissions,
of which nearly a fifth were from individuals rather than organisations
- many of whom also posted messages on the online forum. It seems
clear that there was a synergy between the online forum and our
written evidence, with involvement in the forum encouraging individuals
to submit formal evidence. Of the online forum participants who
completed the evaluation survey, around a third had submitted
formal evidence. Although the forum received messages that were
verbatim copies of written evidence, some of these were too long
and 'academic' to spark much interest online and even attracted
some negative comment. Where participants summarised their written
evidence for an online audience, this was more easily integrated
However, subsequent Committees using this method
may wish to consider methods of reducing the overlap between formal
evidence and online evidence. One possibility would be to choose
one specific facet of the inquiry where wide public involvement
would be particularly useful, and take evidence on this topic
through the online forum only. There would, of course, need to
be suitable safeguards so that those without internet access could
also contribute. The Committee would also need to ensure that
the topic discussion online fed into their general deliberations
and remained central to the inquiry, rather than being 'hived
off' and forgotten. This risk could potentially be reduced by
inviting a selection of active online contributors to an oral
evidence session towards the end of the inquiry.
The online forum integrated well with other novel
aspects of our inquiry. Of the 80 online forum participants who
returned the evaluation survey, over a quarter had watched the
webcasts of our evidence sessions and 13 had watched on BBC Parliament
(about the same proportion as had attended a hearing in person).
Taken as a whole, we feel the innovative features of our inquiry
such as the online forum have enhanced the openness of our deliberations.
We are particularly pleased that nearly 400 people registered
for the forum. However, these exercises are not free, either in
financial terms or in terms of the Committee's time. Therefore,
future pre-legislative scrutiny committees will need to consider
carefully how the best use can be made of such methods.
748 The Hansard Society is an independent educational
charity which brings together Parliamentarians, academics, journalists,
parliamentary staff and others from across the political spectrum
to promote effective parliamentary democracy. http://www.hansardsociety.org.uk/ Back
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is an
office of both Houses of Parliament that provides independent
and balanced information and analysis to Parliamentarians. http://www.parliament.uk/post/home.htm Back
Lara Celini (Edinburgh Media Policy Group), Robert Beveridge (Napier
and Edinburgh Universities). Back
Jacqui Brookes (Association of Communications Service Providers),
Andrea Dworak (Energis), Sandra Blackburn. Back
Steve Green, Steve Hurley, David Harrington (Communications Management
Association), Jacqui Brookes (ACSP), Andrea Dworak (Energis). Back
Sandra Blackburn, Robert Beveridge (Napier and Edinburgh Universities),
Nigel Bleasdale, Dick Winchester, Jack McArdle (Chairman, CMA
Scottish Forum). Back
Jankel (Director, Ocean Solutions Limited). Back
Robert Beveridge (Napier and Edinburgh Universities). Back
Sheila Duncan, John Clark (Voice of the Listener and Viewer). Back
Richard Allan MP, Chris Harris, Neil, Vivienne, Andrew, &
Ruth Charlton. Back
Ed Wheeler, Colin Stone, Colin Ryder. Back
B Willis, Susannah Simons (GWR group). Back
Robert Beveridge, Steve Green, Lara Celini. Back
Olivier Nilsson-Julien, Guy Hallifax, Peter Corey (Chairman, Writer's
Guild Children's Committee). Back
Robert Beveridge. Back
Colin Ryder, John Matthews (Wales Green Party- Plaid Werdd Cymru),
Wynn Rees. Back
Padraig Macgiollachomhaill, Marcas Mac Pháidín,
Ruairí Ó Bléine, Máire Zepf, Shane
MacGowan, Antaine Ó Labhradha, J Christopher Napier, William
McCallum, Risteard MacGabhann, Sarah Creaner, Gavin Falconer,
Clar Ni Chnaimhsi, Dáithí MacShim, Aoife Ní
Dave Rushton, Magz Hall, Michelle McGuire, Graham Mole, Philip
Reevell, Mary Dowson Back
Peter Grace, Dave Rushton, Graham Mole, Philip Reevell. Back
Caroline Ellis (RNIB), Jim Woodward-Nutt. Back
Steve Green. Back
Tim Windsor-Shaw, Sandra Blackburn. Back