Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom

  Self-regulation for Channels 3, 4 and 5 (Clauses 182-186) could well result in corporate interests being placed before the interests of the audience, especially when viewed as a body of citizens rather than as simply a collection of consumers. This is especially likely in a more fiercely competitive and lightly regulated broadcasting environment in which there may well be a dash for the middle ground, if not a race to the bottom. Much will depend here on the remit, scope and powers of the Content Board, but, as the Bill currently stands, the proposals for self-regulation look like a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Many would certainly agree that self-regulation in the case of the press is merely a sham.

  The Content Board (Clauses 17-18) will be a key mechanism for ensuring that quality, diversity and innovation remain central to British broadcasting. In effect it will be the guardian of public service values within the commercial terrestrial sector and will embody the guiding principles of the current ITC. It will need substantial powers within OFCOM if it is to be able to combat the negative consequences for programming of greatly increased competition. It is therefore particularly worrying to note at Clause 18(3) that it is considered desirable that the Board should have only a "significant influence" on OFCOM decisions relating to content. This is far too weak; its decisions should be accepted and implemented without demur, otherwise it's extremely hard to see how "it should be at the heart of OFCOM", as the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport put it at a recent VLV meeting. Indeed, why bother to have the Board at all, if its role is effectively to be merely advisory? Given the crucial importance of the Board in protecting public service principles, its powers and duties must be clearly defined in the legislation, and it must be properly resourced so that it can carry out in-depth monitoring of programme content, undertake research into broader programming issues (as does the current Broadcasting Standards Commission), and consult regularly with the wider communities which broadcasting is supposed to serve. Since its main task should be the safeguarding of citizens' interests, its membership should be drawn mainly from public interest groups, NGOs and other key constituents of civil society. It will also need to be provided with effective sanctions if giant media owners—especially if based far away abroad—are to take its requirements and judgments remotely seriously. There is, in fact, a strong argument for constituting the Content Board as a body quite separate from OFCOM.


  Some of the general duties prescribed for OFCOM (Clause 3) may well be mutually incompatible. For example, Clause 3(1)(b) states that OFCOM must "promote competition in the provision and making available" of broadcast services; however, other sub-clauses require it to ensure a "wide range of television and radio services are available throughout the United Kingdom" and that this range is "both of high quality and calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests". There appears to be a considerable contradiction between ends and means here, since the experience of broadcasting deregulation, both in the UK and abroad, clearly suggests that "promoting competition" by no means leads to diverse, high quality programmes; indeed, it can very easily lead to their diminution and even disappearance. In this respect it is a matter for concern that Clause 3(1)(a) defines media audiences as "customers" rather than citizens. In general, OFCOM's role should not be merely defensive of public service broadcasting but it should have the obligation positively to promote high quality public services which inform, educate and entertain and which fully reflect the range of opinions and cultures in the UK across all the major commercial channels. What it most emphatically should not be under any circumstances is a British version of the Federal Communications Commission.


  Whilst the Bill's attempt to define the public service remit for television (Clause 181) is welcome, it also contains worrying elements. For example, 181(3) outlines various general requirements for public service television broadcasting, but these have only to be "taken together", presumably across several services and including the BBC. This could very easily lead to a situation in which a broadcaster excuses themselves from fulfilling a particular aspect of the public service remit on the grounds that another broadcaster, the BBC for example, is already doing so adequately. Cumulatively, this could rapidly result in an overall reduction of certain types of programming in the broadcasting system as a whole, especially one in which there is a marked increase in competition for audiences. Furthermore, OFCOM is required only to "have regard to the desirability of" fulfilling the eight public service requirements outlined in 181(5), which, again, have to be "taken together" across all the public service broadcasters. Our worry here is that what the Bill actually threatens to establish is a commercial broadcasting system with a few scattered public service obligations, rather than ensuring the continued commitment to a full public service broadcasting system. Furthermore, in order to ensure a fair degree of competition, the by now highly successful and well established BSkyB should be subject to exactly the same public service requirements as Channel 3, and this should be achieved not by reducing the latter's obligations (already significantly lessened by the 1990 Act) but by increasing the former's. More specifically, the Bill should include a greater onus on broadcasters, other than that contained in 181(5)(c), to provide adequate coverage of European and world affairs. As a number of authoritative reports from Third World and Environment Broadcasting Project have conclusively demonstrated, coverage of foreign affairs has been a major casualty of the deregulation introduced by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, and it would be a disaster if the amount of coverage was reduced still further as a result of this particular Bill.

June 2002

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