Joint Committee on Draft Communications Bill Report


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 Society[748] and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology[749]. The forum allowed participants to post contributions on a web site (, 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.


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 included:

  • proposals for Scottish representation on OFCOM's main Board (and support for increasing the size of the Board)[750];
  • 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.[751] 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[752] - for example, in regulating the audio quality on digital radio. Contributors suggested 'appropriate' and 'proportionate' as more suitable terms.

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 returns.

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[753] - ranging from universally available telecommunications services to quality television programmes. For example, Nigel Bleasdale wrote:

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, including:

  • The importance of OFCOM having expertise in complex and detailed economic regulation - for example, on tariff publication to encourage competition.[754]
  • The need for OFCOM's fine limits to be increased, to ensure they have a significant impact on large companies.[755]
  • 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 administration.

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.[756] 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.

Grant Mason

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?

Richard McBrien

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 of America's.

Graham Lester-George

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%.

Geoff Mason

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 that:

  • 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 broadcasting.
  • 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[757]. 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 received.

Content regulation

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.[758] Nevertheless, there were also arguments for the reduction of content regulation and increasing reliance on viewer and listener choice.[759] 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,[760] 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 programming:

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[761]. 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 brands.

  • 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[762]

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.[763] In particular, there were a number of messages from individuals in Northern Ireland disappointed with the lack of explicit provision for Irish language programming,[764] 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.[765] 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."[766].
  • 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.

Consumer Panel

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 of interest[767] and enabling it to conduct research.[768] 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.[769] 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(?) consecutive years.


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, 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

As expected, much of the evidence submitted to 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 process.

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 into discussion.

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. Back

749   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. Back

750   Lara Celini (Edinburgh Media Policy Group), Robert Beveridge (Napier and Edinburgh Universities). Back

751   Jacqui Brookes (Association of Communications Service Providers), Andrea Dworak (Energis), Sandra Blackburn. Back

752   Steve Green, Steve Hurley, David Harrington (Communications Management Association), Jacqui Brookes (ACSP), Andrea Dworak (Energis). Back

753   Sandra Blackburn, Robert Beveridge (Napier and Edinburgh Universities), Nigel Bleasdale, Dick Winchester, Jack McArdle (Chairman, CMA Scottish Forum). Back

754  Paul Jankel (Director, Ocean Solutions Limited). Back

755   Robert Beveridge (Napier and Edinburgh Universities). Back

756   Sheila Duncan, John Clark (Voice of the Listener and Viewer). Back

757   Richard Allan MP, Chris Harris, Neil, Vivienne, Andrew, & Ruth Charlton. Back

758   Ed Wheeler, Colin Stone, Colin Ryder. Back

759   B Willis, Susannah Simons (GWR group). Back

760   Robert Beveridge, Steve Green, Lara Celini. Back

761   Olivier Nilsson-Julien, Guy Hallifax, Peter Corey (Chairman, Writer's Guild Children's Committee). Back

762   Robert Beveridge. Back

763   Colin Ryder, John Matthews (Wales Green Party- Plaid Werdd Cymru), Wynn Rees. Back

764   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 Scolaí. Back

765   Dave Rushton, Magz Hall, Michelle McGuire, Graham Mole, Philip Reevell, Mary Dowson Back

766   Peter Grace, Dave Rushton, Graham Mole, Philip Reevell. Back

767   Caroline Ellis (RNIB), Jim Woodward-Nutt. Back

768   Steve Green. Back

769   Tim Windsor-Shaw, Sandra Blackburn. Back

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