Memorandum submitted by the British Broadcasting
The BBC welcomes the opportunity to contribute
to the Select Committee's inquiry into the Government's proposals
for the regulation of the converging communications industries.
This brief memorandum draws on the BBC's response to the White
Paper, while focusing on those areas which the Select Committee
have identified as being of special interest to them in the inquiry.
The BBC welcomes the broad range of proposals
in the Government's White Paper, which manages the difficult task
of steering a course between the interests of audiences and the
commercial needs of a modern and expanding industry.
In its initial submission to the Government's
Review of 4 July 2000, the BBC noted that the convergence of communications
and media technologies and markets is creating huge opportunities
for UK businesses, consumers and citizens, of which the UK is
well-placed to take advantage, but that there are also potential
barriers to success. The purpose of any future regulatory framework
should be to open up the sector to competition, guarantee access
for all consumers to the widest range and highest quality of service,
and maximise the economic potential for the UK.
Within this framework, the BBC identified in
its submission a clear and wide-ranging role for the Corporation
in the digital age, flowing from its broadly based remit and its
continuing key values, and underpinned by its independence from
Government and commercial interests, guaranteed by the Board of
Governors. The BBC welcomes the White Paper's strong endorsement
of the BBC's role, remit and independence. The BBC will take up
the challenge of convergence and will seek energetically to play
its full role in delivering its benefits to the UK, as envisaged
by the White Paper.
The Committee has asked for views on OFCOM's
role in regulating public service broadcasting across the industry.
The BBC supports the concept that certain basic
content standards should apply across the industry, and that these
should be consistently regulatedjust as the BBC currently
establishes common benchmarks in certain areas, and just as competition
issues are consistently regulated by the OFT and the Competition
Commission. The BBC therefore accepts that in most of the areas
identified by the White Paper as falling within "Tier 1",
the BBC should be subject to industry-wide benchmarks and codes.
The BBC considers that the relationship between
OFCOM and broadcasters concerning the establishment and monitoring
of Tier 1 standards should be designed to support and encourage
co-regulation, rather than to invite conflict. The Board of Governors
will seek to work closely with OFCOM to ensure the productive
and effective establishment of common benchmarks and to reflect
both the duties of OFCOM and the continuing responsibilities of
the Board for the editorial content of BBC programmes.
The BBC welcomes the Government's acknowledgement
that the issue of "the provision of fair, impartial and accurate
news" is so closely bound up with the Board of Governors'
responsibilities for ensuring the editorial independence of the
BBC, that responsibility for ensuring compliance within the BBC
should therefore remain with the Board.
In "Tier 2" of the regulatory framework,
the BBC acknowledges, as it always has done, that there are certain
public service obligations which are quantifiable and which apply
across all public service broadcasters, such as the quota on independent
productions. In some cases the obligations are contained in legislation.
In others, they are replicated in the BBC's Agreement with the
Secretary of State. In some cases, obligations have no direct
legal force in the case of the BBC, but the BBC has undertaken
to at least match the targets set for othersfor example,
in the case of the provision of subtitling, signing and audio-description.
The BBC would wish to discuss with the Government the most appropriate
mechanism for ensuring the delivery of the Tier 2 obligations
outside the requirement to carry news and current affairs programming
in peak time, andas with newswould in particular
be willing to contemplate amendments to its Agreement with the
Secretary of State to enshrine the obligations in its own legal
framework and therefore best ensure their implementation. The
BBC would also wish to explore further the interface between the
responsibilities of OFCOM and those of the Board of Governors
for ensuring the delivery of obligations within the Agreement.
The Committee asked for comments on the White
Paper's proposals for the future regulation of the radio marketplace.
The White Paper made three broad proposalsthat
there might be greater consolidation of ownership of radio licences,
that the broad requirement that one national commercial licence
should be a speech-based service and another for a non-pop music
station should be retained, and that remaining format restrictions
on local commercial radio stations should be lifted, to enable
them to evolve in response to market conditions.
The BBC agrees that current media ownership
rules may fragment the radio industry to a greater degree than
may be economically desirable. Requirements for "pluralism"
and competition in the radio sector can run counter to those of
diversity. Because each operator is so small, their revenue stream
compels them towards a common "middle ground", of playlist
music. Allowing more consolidation in that particular market would
allow companies to spread their investment across a wider range
of programming, and could therefore deliver the desirable outcome
of greater diversity in the local marketplace.
Against the background of the proposed relaxation
of ownership rules, the rapid growth of commercial stations in
recent years, and the further expansion which digital radio will
provide, it would seem logical to allow more flexibility in the
format of individual stations. It is essential, however, that
any such additional flexibility is not seen as downgrading the
importance of radio in the media marketplace. OFCOM will need
to maintain a sharp and dedicated focus on the commercial radio
market to ensure that it continues to deliver public benefits,
particularly during the roll-out of digital radio.
Any reduction in obligations on commercial radio
will place even greater emphasis than hitherto on the role of
the BBC in providing the guarantee of diversity in the radio marketplace,
high investment in a wide range of quality output, and the nurturing
of new talent. Already, the BBC, through its five complementary
national networks and its distinctive local radio stations, is
responsible for providing the bulk of diversity in a marketplace
otherwise dominated by commercial playlist pop music. That this
diversity is valued is demonstrated by the fact that the BBC has
maintained a share of over 50 per cent of all radio listening
despite the huge expansion of the commercial radio market. In
its proposals for new digital radio services, which have been
submitted to the Secretary of State for approval, the BBC would
further increase the diversity of its public service offering
and thus ensure that the radio marketplace served the widest possible
range of listener interests.
The BBC supports the general objectives and
principles which the White Paper sets out for content regulation,
as well as the broad tiered structure for delivering content obligations,
which follows the outline suggested in the BBC's own initial submission
to the review.
The Committee asked in particular for views
on the regulation of new media outlets. The BBC accepts that users
of new media services expect and deserve protection from inappropriate
content or from exploitation. However, it is recognised that it
is inappropriateand ultimately fruitlessto attempt
to apply the same regulatory measures which have delivered basic
content standards across nationally-licensed broadcasting services
on new online media the content of which is international and
However, the White Paper identifies a number
of elements which could have a role to play in ensuring that consumers
continue to enjoy appropriate protection, including:
reliance on basic laws (eg obscenity
a role for OFCOM inactively tackling
the promotion by OFCOM of rating
and filtering systems; and
the education of consumers in the
use of new media and associated protection devices.
The BBC will seek to play a leading role in
empowering consumers, including in ways such as these, to exercise
with confidence the choices which the new media will provide.
As far as rating and filtering systems in particular
are concerned, the BBC is not yet satisfied that the systems which
are available are sufficiently sophisticated to be effective,
and we are therefore still considering whether to rate BBC sites.
The White Paper also identifies a role for established
broadcasters, operating under obligations of accuracy and due
impartiality, to bring the same qualities to bear in the online
news offerings. The BBC's own highly successful Online News site
embodies the same high editorial standards as the rest of the
BBC's output. The BBC accepts that it has an obligation in the
new media world, with its broader range of materials, to be the
guarantor not only of universal access to a wide range of material
of the highest quality, but also of impartial news and information,
acting as a "trusted guide" to new media users and increasing
The Committee also asked for views on the Government's
proposals on media ownership.
As stated in its initial submission, the BBC
believes in general that the UK's interests are best served by
a regime which encourages the development of commercial British
media players able to operate globally, boost exports and support
strong growth in the creative economy at home. The BBC therefore
welcomes the Government's conclusion that further consolidation
might be allowed within the broadcast marketplaceincluding
ownership of ITV and of local radio stations.
However, safeguards are still appropriate to
ensure that there is plurality of voice in the British media.
As media outlets and platforms multiply, the public interest is
in seeing a multiplication of voice and opinion, rather than the
dominance of any particular viewpoint. The potential of the converging
digital media marketplace to underpin public debate and improve
access to information is one of the key public benefits which
the Government has set, and it should inform the Government's
approach to continuing media ownership rules. Competition Act
powers, focusing on dominance in marketplaces rather than on plurality
of voice, will not alone be sufficient safeguard.
As competition within different strands of the
media increases with the expansion made possible by digital technology,
the main threat to plurality comes from cross-media and vertically-integrated
companies. In particular, the newspaper market, both nationally
and locally, will continue to accommodate a relatively small number
of players compared to other media. Coupled with a powerful position
in other pervasive mediasuch as television and radio services
with wide reach, and particularly those broadcast services which
benefit from regulatory privileges to ensure they reach a universal
audiencethis could act against the public interest in pluralism.
The danger is of course increased as further consolidation is
envisaged within television and radio markets.
The BBC therefore considers that specific cross-media
ownership rules will continue to be appropriate in the future.
In particular, the BBC considers that the current rules restricting
ownership of broadcast outlets by newspaper interests with 20
per cent or greater of the national newspaper marketplace, and
similar specific restrictions on cross-ownerships in local marketplaces,
are appropriate and proportionate, have worked well in the public
interest, and should be maintained.