Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Equity

  1.  Equity, as the union representing 37,000 actors, singers, dancers and other professional performers working in the UK, has a strong interest in the Communications Bill. The broadcasters employ a significant proportion of our members on a regular basis and we would strongly oppose any legislation that would have an adverse effect on those employment opportunities.

  2.  We note that not all information pertaining to the Communications Bill is currently available, and that the consultation on the Channel Four licence renewal, which will outline the channel's public service broadcasting responsibilities will conclude after the final response date for this consultation. Equity, when all this information has been received, will therefore be submitting a full response. In the meantime however, this response should be viewed alongside our paper submitted to the Welsh Authority, a copy of which has been attached.

  3.  While we will cover all areas within the Joint Committee's remit, our main comments will relate to question three: content regulation. It is likely that we will expand our comments in the other areas in subsequent submissions when we have had the opportunity to consult further.


  4.  Originally we were of the view that, given the importance of content, that it should be regulated separately from those other areas to be incorporated into OFCOM's remit. While we recognise and note the reasons why the Government has decided to simplify regulation through the creation of a single Office of Communications, we nevertheless remain of the view that content is an important facet of the regulatory structure and therefore needs to be accorded particular attention. Given the decision to create a Content Board, particularly the intention for it to operate within the overall structure of OFCOM, we welcome the fact that the Policy Statement confirms that it will have specific executive and advisory functions delegated to it by the main Board. As these are crucial to the effectiveness of the Board, Equity would urge Parliament to ensure that these responsibilities are outlined prior to the enactment of the Bill. Similarly, the appointments to this Board are crucial, and we would welcome further details as to how these people will be chosen. Equity recommends that the Board should have representation appropriate to upholding the public interest as well as be able to call representatives of key interest groups, not represented on the Board, to speak on a particular topic.

  5.  With regard to the main Board, we note that it is not clear what criteria will be used to appoint the membership and how the many interests, not just broadcasting and telecommunications, but regional and local, will be effectively represented. We note that Board members will be required to balance a number of concerns, and while we appreciate the need to keep the Board limited, we would want to see measures implemented to ensure that each of those interests are represented. We agree that OFCOM should report annually to Parliament, including its assessment of the state of the market, however, we note that programming is often planned two years ahead. This may mean that OFCOM would be limited in its assessment of content provision in its first year. Instead therefore, Equity recommends that for the first year, the Secretary of State for Culture in association with OFCOM, conducts a consultation of interested organisations into how OFCOM and the PSB broadcasters are performing. This should coincide with the OFCOM Annual Report and the broadcasters' assessment of their achievements alongside their Statements of Programme Policy.


  6.  Equity notes that there will be many responses to the consultation that will condemn such a full relaxation of the media ownership rules. We are yet to see any convincing arguments in favour of these changes and any benefits that they will bring for British consumers, or to the quality and range of programming on our television screens. Additionally, we do not see how these changes will improve employment opportunities or improve the already serious imbalance of payments resulting from the import and export of programmes to the Unites States. However, our concern as a trade union representing performers, relates to the programme output that any new non-European owner may wish to produce. It is likely that, if an American company for example, was to purchase ITV or Channel 5, it would bring with it an extensive back catalogue of programming. We are not convinced that the Bill as currently drafted, provides sufficient protection for domestic production in these circumstances. Equity would argue therefore that the legislation should provide for a maintained level of investment and high quality British production, particularly drama, and give OFCOM special powers to monitor programming on newly acquired channels to ensure that this requirement is observed. Incidentally, the Bill has no requirement to encourage investment in UK drama, and we believe that as a genre seriously under threat, demonstrated by the recent news story that ITV is holding back from £21m worth of new drama productions, a provision should be included.

  7.  While the Joint Committee outline for responses does not specifically mention training and equal opportunities, Equity believes that when considering the promotion of a dynamic and competitive market, comments should be included. Equity welcomes the provisions in the Bill on training, particularly as it includes all people employed by the broadcaster. Equity would interpret this provision as including our members who are employed in productions, and we trust that the Joint Committee shares this interpretation. For future clarification, Equity would urge that clause (11) is amended to make this clear.


  8.  Equity is concerned about the widespread view that "lighter regulation" appears to be desirable in itself. In our view, the quality and range of British television production has resulted directly from the existence of regulation, which has in any event in recent years been applied with a "light touch". We are therefore unconvinced that the existing regulations are a barrier to the industry in an admittedly more competitive market, and fear that without them, the more recent and apparent decline would accelerate. Our preference would be, rather than lifting regulatory obligations on existing terrestrial channels, comparable requirements should be placed on their competitors.

  9.  Equity notes that the Bill would introduce a self-regulatory scheme for content, including public service broadcasting. The main manifestation of this approach would be through Statements of Programme Policy, produced by the broadcasters a year in advance. We understand that OFCOM will provide guidance on the Statements, as the ITC has done during the 2001 trial, and that both the Broadcasters and OFCOM would evaluate the Broadcasters' achievements at the end of the year. We would question the decision not to continue to maintain the adherence to genre quotas, for reasons outlined above. Referring to the ITC's ``trial run'' on the statements of programme policy this year, we note that the ITC's Annual Report was severely lacking in any guidance or criticism of the broadcasters and merely seemed to endorse or report back what the broadcasters themselves thought of their achievements. We do not think that there is sufficient evidence based on this trial run, that this would be an effective means of regulation. Instead we believe that this relaxation could cause a drop in programme quality and diversity. Additionally, if this were to happen it would further dent the Government's already stated ambition to increase employment in the sector and build on it's performance in international markets. We would therefore wish to see tighter controls on the quality and quantity of certain genres.

  10.  The approach of ``news'', ``current affairs'' and ``other'' when allocating genre time is insufficient, we would argue, to provide a diversity of content. In fact, the lack of duty to ensure ``wide'' diverse content provides even greater flexibility, when as public service broadcasters the requirements should be more specific (181). Equity would recommend the Committee amends this clause, inserting the word ``wide'' to ensure that this obligation so successful in the previous Broadcasting Acts, is protected.

  11.  Equity notes that in its submission to the Joint Committee, the ITC considered that the definition of public service broadcasting provided with the Bill was too demanding for commercial broadcasters. While Equity understands that the digital environment is likely to create additional competitive pressures, we also note that viewers, even in multi-channel homes, still prefer to watch the main five channels (Public's View 2001, ITC). Additionally, while switch over is far from imminent, broadcasters should have meeting their public service obligations as their overriding priority. Equity therefore recommends the full adoption of the definition.

  12.  Equity is also concerned that the Bill does not provide for an explicit inclusion requiring broadcasters, radio and television, to reflect British creativity, talent, multicultural and social values. This is a key requirement in a diverse, multicultural society such as ours, and it should not be taken for granted that broadcasters will meet this requirement without any obligation to do so. Drama particularly plays a role in this and has a key role to play in maintaining local, regional and national identities. Equity would therefore urge the Committee to ensure that the Bill includes such an amendment with a particular reference to high quality, original, socially inclusive drama.

  13.  Equity is disappointed with the lack of detail regarding regional broadcasting, and the omission of drama from clause (181 (5)(a)) as an essential genre component of PSB. Instead it is only mentioned in the context of ensuring cultural activity and diversity in programming (ie drama reflecting the cultural and diverse nature of the UK). As stated above, drama has a special role to play in British broadcasting, and we urge the Committee to amend clause (181 (5)(b)) to include drama, rather than just ``entertainment'', which we believe is too narrow a definition.

  14.  Equity welcomes the continuation of commitments to independent production and original production, as well as the new programme production outside of the M25 requirements. We ask the Committee that every effort is made to ensure these requirements remain within the Bill. We note however, that the Bill only requires a "sufficient amount of time" and a "suitable range" of regional programming on ITV. While we understand that this is to provide a degree of flexibility in licensing, we are concerned that these provisions will provide insufficient protection for regional programming for a region, made in a region, or that it will ensure sufficient diversity. In order to meet these concerns, Equity would urge the Committee to ensure that the Bill places a firm obligation on OFCOM to ensure that a wide range of programming that reflects our nations and regions and includes material across all genres is broadcast.


  15.  Equity has already submitted a response to the Welsh Authority on the position of the Authority regarding the Bill. We note that the DTI/DCMS has yet to publish its policy on this issue and hope therefore that we are able to consider those proposals by the final consultation date.

  16.  Equity notes that the draft Bill includes a range of measures designed to ensure that the needs of the nations and regions are reflected throughout the structures of OFCOM, albeit without specific representation on the Board (see our comments above). As there will be a major national and regional dimension to many of the Board's activities, we would welcome details as to how the Board will ensure that these interests will be catered for. Equity is not convinced that national and regional representation on the Content Board and Consumer Panel will be sufficient.


  17.  Equity notes that the Bill is intended to legislate for the next decade, during that time, the BBC Agreement and Charter will have been renewed, and the digital switchover is intended to be completed. As demonstrated by the delay in the publication of the Bill, the communications industries are fast moving and highly complex, with many different competing voices and rights. The Bill does allow for certain flexibility to reside with the Secretaries of State, but we note that it is just as likely to get it wrong as right. Because of that, we believe, alongside the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, that the continuation of the licence fee in essential. Without the protection of the BBC funding, it is likely that the increasing pressure on the commercial public service broadcasters to compete and adapt to new technologies will prove too great to resist, and that public service broadcasting will disappear forever.

  On behalf of Equity: Kelly Wiffen, Research and Parliamentary Officer, 020 7670 0260.

June 2002

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