BACKGROUND BRIEFING : NOVEMBER 2001
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
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
shows some worrying developments since the last Broadcasting Act
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".
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
Public Voice is campaigning for the forthcoming
communications legislation to:
1. Establish a clear definition of public
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
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
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
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