This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Date Published: 22 September 2023
It is 20 years since the last significant piece of media legislation was passed. It was a world before streaming services and widespread internet access, where TV was almost entirely analogue and broadcasters decided when their programmes could be watched.
Now, global players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ compete with UK broadcasters for viewers. Audiences are increasingly moving away from linear broadcasting to watching TV on-demand via smart TVs and streaming sticks. Not everything has changed: Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) continue to sit at the heart of the UK’s media ecosystem, providing content that enriches our culture, society and democracy. But they are doing so against a backdrop of changing audience habits and rapid technological change, and all the while being held to a public service remit written twenty years ago.
It is within this context that the Government has published its draft Media Bill, designed to enable PSBs to thrive in this new world and ensure that on-demand content is held to the same standards as broadcast. We have examined this draft legislation to ensure that it addresses the issues effectively and proportionately, and that it passes the most important test of all, that of delivering for audiences.
We published our interim report on radio prior to the summer. In this report, we consider the rest of the Bill. We look at the Government’s case for simplifying the public service remit and, in particular, for removing the requirement for PSBs to provide content in particular genres. Some of these genres, such as religion and other beliefs, are not sustainable commercially and we are concerned that removing such requirements will lead to a considerable reduction in content. Notwithstanding the Government’s and broadcasters’ views that the current regime is too complicated, we consider that removing genres is a step too far. We also want audiences to have greater confidence that the flexibility of the new remit will not be accompanied by a decline in standards, and so recommend that the Bill should lower the threshold at which Ofcom can intervene should it consider that a PSB is not fulfilling its remit.
We explore the case for restricting the broadcast rights of Listed Events to PSBs. Given the aims of the regime, to ensure that sporting events of national importance can be watched by everyone for free, we support the Government’s position. However, we believe that the Bill does not go far enough. We recommend that the Government should close the streaming loophole allowing an unregulated TV streaming service to buy the rights for a listed event and put them behind a paywall, and also ensure that the legislation can be extended in the future to include digital rights.
We examine what level of prominence smart TVs, firesticks and set-top boxes should be required to give PSBs. The current position, that PSBs are given “appropriate” prominence on Electronic Programme Guides, has determined that they have the top spots. However, this does not work in the advanced user interfaces of today and so we recommend that the threshold for PSB prominence should be raised to “significant”. The tech industry told us that there are technological challenges regarding giving PSBs regional prominence; however, given the size of the revenues of those companies likely to be in scope of the legislation, we do not consider this to be a disproportionate or unreasonable requirement.
We look at the Bill’s so-called “sustainability clause” for Channel 4 and the extent to which it adds to directors’ existing obligations. We recommend that the Government ensures that the new clause is compatible with the broadcaster’s existing legal framework. We also look at the Bill’s removal of Channel 4’s publisher-broadcaster model and its implications for the independent production sector. We do not believe that reducing commercial opportunities for independent producers to improve those for a national broadcaster is an effective way of ensuring the future sustainability of the industry. We look forward to hearing what mitigations the Government intends to put in place to ensure that this does not happen.
We consider the Government’s case for requiring only the largest on-demand providers to abide by the new Video-on-Demand Code. However, we conclude that it does not meet the Government’s aim of giving audiences confidence that all content, however they choose to consume it, is subject to the same regulations. We recommend that the new Code applies to all services.
We have also looked carefully at the powers the Bill gives the Government to amend the legislation in the future. We agree that the legislation should be future-proofed: we don’t want to have to wait another twenty years for another legislative window. But, in some cases, we consider that there are not sufficient safeguards in place and we call for more Parliamentary scrutiny or input from Ofcom.
Finally, we examine the evidence we received regarding the removal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. This provision would, if commenced, require news publishers to pay the costs of any court judgement if they were not a member of an approved regulator, regardless of the outcome. We believe that there can be no room for complacency regarding press standards and will continue to scrutinise the work of the media industry and hold the press accountable for its reporting.