Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



  The draft communications bill, due for publication early next year, is likely to be the most important piece of legislation in this area for the next decade, but many organisations and individuals are unaware of this, or of the effect it could have on their work and their access to information. With the paving bill to establish the new communications industry regulator (OFCOM) currently progressing through Parliament Public Voice is lobbying for amendments to protect the interests of citizens and consumers and to strengthen the role of public service broadcasting (PSB).

  Public Voice is a voluntary sector network established to ensure that this 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.

  We are also in a period of change within the broadcasting industry, technological developments such as the development of digital television and radio services, and closer links between broadcasting, telephony and the internet, ("convergence"), are changing the ways in which we communicate. We believe the Government is right to encourage the development of digital services, and to encourage innovation and investment in such services by broadcasters as long as sufficient safeguards and resources for analogue services are retained during the transition from analogue to digital services. The communications legislation must ensure that public service programming remains available to all.

  Public Voice wants clear and durable regulatory regimes to protect and strengthen PSB in the digital age, so that the most widely used media continue to offer quality coverage and support materials on a wide range of social, cultural, international, scientific and arts related subjects.


  The Government argues in its Communications White Paper that regulation of broadcasting and in particular the proposed "third tier" which will cover public service broadcasting (PSB), needs to be more flexible in order to give broadcasters the opportunity to "self regulate" as appropriate so that they can compete in an open market.

  Public Voice believes this is an over-simplistic view that ignores the important role broadcasting plays in our democratic process. Broadcasting informs, educates and involves UK citizens in a unique way creating opportunities for debate, discussion and other involvement in the wider community.

  We believe a reduction in regulation will increase pressure on public service broadcasters to popularise their programming in order to boost ratings thus squeezing PSB programmes. A clear definition of PSB and specific requirements on each public service broadcaster would actually protect both broadcasters and audiences whilst allowing broadcasters sufficient freedom to produce programmes appropriate to their own target audiences.

  Public service broadcasting plays an important educational and informational role in our society and many voluntary and community organisations rely on it to help them raise awareness of key issues and to inform, motivate and involve the public.


  A mixed schedule and universal access to programmes are at the heart of public service broadcasting. Public Voice believes both are in danger under the current proposals. Monitoring by organisations in membership of Public Voice[5] shows some worrying developments since the last Broadcasting Act in 1990:

    A refocusing of current affairs programming to emphasise popular "consumer" issues at the expense of broader and more complex subjects.

    A reduction in the total output of factual programmes on developing countries by the four on-going terrestrial channels of almost 50 per cent.

    Less innovation in drama and an over concentration on domestic and international repeats.

    In 1994 the main slot for "serious documentaries" on the ITV network (10.30pm on a Tuesday evening) transmitted 34 hours of documentary programming. By 1997 this had dropped to 18 hours.

    Subject matter has narrowed with an increase in the number of films about royalty or celebrities and there has also been a significant increase in the commissioning of popular programmes such as "Neighbours from Hell".

    Budgets for serious documentary programming have steadily been reduced yet ITV companies have taken an increased profit margin (20 per cent off the top of the budget) for each film they produce.

    Despite criticism by its regulator the ITC the ITV network has failed to increase its documentary output. The ITC in turn has failed to exercise its punitive powers effectively — demonstrating the need for an empowered and proactive regulator under the new legislation.

    On ITV documentaries now must vie for airtime (and budget) on a purely commercial basis: they must deliver high audiences or face extinction. This means a steady increase in ITV's output of "confessional" or "popular" documentaries — and a reduction in the sort of "serious documentaries" which the ITC has identified as "the best ITV tradition".

Digital drift

  The BBC, whilst maintaining a more balanced documentary schedule than ITV is not immune from criticism. We are concerned that the recent approval of most of the BBC's proposals for new digital services could lead to programmes being shifted from BBC1 or BBC2 onto the new digital channels which the majority of the population don't yet have access to. We support the BBC's desire to be at the forefront of developing digital services as long this is not done at the expense of programming on BBC1 and BBC2. The BBC's expansion must include specific commitments to educate as well as to inform and entertain, this should be applied to new as well as existing services. In order to ensure this is the case the BBC should publish their benchmark spending levels on arts, science, religious, children's, educational issues, news and current affairs, international and social action programming.

  The BBC has argued that take-up of digital services will be stimulated by the provision of high quality content, this may well be a valid argument but it is not sufficient in itself. The quality of content must be considered alongside the costs to the public of switching to digital (TVs, radios, set top boxes, satellites etc) and the extent of digital coverage UK-wide. Making digital technology cheap and accessible is far more likely to increase take up. The DCMS indicated in 2000 that it was unwilling to consider subsidising the costs of such equipment, we are calling on the current Secretary of State to consider again and to include this issue in the forthcoming consultation on the draft communications bill.


  Public Voice is campaigning for the forthcoming communications legislation to:

    1.  Establish a clear definition of public service broadcasting.

    2.  Establish a clear definition of the activities and obligations of public service broadcasters.

    3.  Establish OFCOM as an active regulator with more than retrospective backstop powers.

    4.  Establish an independent citizenship body working with OFCOM to ensure that the public interest is served.

  In order to achieve this the following process needs to be implemented:

    (a)  The establishment of a benchmarking process for the broadcasters annual statements of promise set by OFCOM for each public service broadcaster.

    (b)  A requirement on broadcasters to relate their annual statements of promise to the benchmark standard.

    (c)  A written public response from the regulator on the broadcaster's statement of promise.

    (d)  The ongoing monitoring by the regulator throughout the year and public comment/censure if necessary.

    (e)  A regulator's report published at the end of the year, regulator has the power to refer to the Secretary of State in cases of failure.

    (f)  The setting of new benchmarks for forthcoming year.


  Public service communications are provided as a public good for the purposes of correcting market failure in information, supporting democracy and reflecting the diversity of audience interests. They will be led by public service broadcasting, using other media platforms for supporting information. There will be universal access, free at the point of delivery, to such services both before and after digital switchover.

  Public service broadcasting is defined as a mixed schedule of high quality programmes including educational and educative programming, regional factual programmes, children's programmes, religious programmes, social action programming and coverage of news and current affairs, arts, science and international issue provided at times and in locations which are accessible to all.


  Tier 3 obligations should be varied for individual broadcasters, with BBC channels and Channel 4 at the highest level and other advertising funded services at a lower level. But wherever Tier 3 obligations exist they are intended to be specific and binding.


  Powers should be invested in the relevant regulators to develop a range of active sanctions for use in the event of failure to deliver Tier 2 and Tier 3 public service obligations. The regulators would report such failures to the Secretary of State on an annual basis. Specific remits for each of the public service broadcasters would be outlined in secondary legislation.

  OFCOM should have a duty to develop and maintain the necessary regulatory rules, in full consultation with industry and representatives of citizens and consumers, within a broad framework of principles established in statute.

  The Tier 3 obligations of broadcasters should be determined by the Secretary of State in guidance, and benchmarked and enforced by the relevant regulators for each broadcaster.

  Benchmarking standards should be set for each individual broadcaster with broadcasters required to meet these each year. They would also be required to produce annual statements of intent on how to meet their obligations.


  The independent citizenship advisory panel would work directly with OFCOM on monitoring both content and service delivery to ensure that the public interest is served. The panel would be responsible for the monitoring and regulation of public service broadcasters' performance with regard to their positive content obligations, the quality of the programming delivered under these, and broader public service broadcasting issues from the perspective of the citizens of the UK. It would be an independent advisory body to OFCOM, and would be properly resourced with its own research budget and secretariat but reporting directly to an internal OFCOM division responsible for monitoring public service obligations and outputs.


  This autumn we will be briefing Peers and MPs and lobbying for amendments to the bill to establish OFCOM. Help our campaign by identifying sympathetic political contacts and by promoting the Public Voice arguments.

  Join one of the specialist working groups we will be setting up to look at issues around consumer welfare, ownership, content, accountability and help us prepare our case in advance of the publication of the draft communications bill.

  Let us have positive examples of PSB programming that we can use to illustrate our campaign or let us know about programmes or related activities that you believe could be endangered.

  Identify key figures in the media industry who might be sympathetic to our cause and help us publicise our campaign in the media.

  Ensure that your colleagues and client groups understand the part PSB plays in our broadcasting schedules and what they could lose without it.

14 December 2001

5   Sources: A shrinking iceberg travelling south: Changing Trends in British Television: A case study of drama and current affairs. Steven Barnett and Emily Seymour, published by the Campaign for Quality Television 1999. Losing Perspective: Global Affairs on British Terrestrial Television 1989-99, Jennie Stone, published by The Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project. Serious Documentaries on ITV published by the Campaign for Quality Television in 1998. Serious Documentaries on ITV: An endangered species published by the Campaign for Quality Television in 1999. Back

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