Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by BECTU


  1.  BECTU is the media trade union with large numbers of members working in the broadcasting and independent production sectors. As requested, we give below written evidence concentrating on the major issues arising from the draft Bill.

  2.  Our evidence is set out under major headings taken from the Call for Evidence. Within those headings we have restricted our comments to the issues of most significance to our members. Among the various issues raised, the most immediate practical priority for us is that of ITV regional programme production, as indicated in paragraphs 14-19 below. We hope you will take particular note of our views in this area.


  3.  Our overriding concern on OFCOM is to retain a separate, powerful and specific focus on content as distinct from economic and technical regulation. We believe that without this, we will be unable to guarantee the continuing benefits of public service broadcasting, of quality programming and of media pluralism.

  4.  We therefore wish to see:

    —  A distinct and identifiable division or department within OFCOM to deal with content regulation.

    —  Separate personnel to undertake these functions, with appropriate expertise and experience.

    —  Clear and transparent means of conflict-resolution with OFCOM's economic and competition-driven objectives.

  5.  We welcome the establishment of a Content-Board within OFCOM and call for OFCOM and the Content Board:

    —  to be open and transparent in their operations, within meetings in public wherever possible and/or full published minutes;

    —  to be accountable to Parliament and to the relevant Parliamentary Committee;

    —  to include a suitable proportion of people with a content background who work in the industry;

    —  to be representative of the nations of the UK and accountable to their national Parliaments;

    —  to continue the current consultative arrangements with industry bodies, including specifically the Federation of Entertainment Unions.

  6.  On the relationship to the BBC:

    —  We welcome the continuation of separate regulation through the Board of Governors, with backstop powers with the Secretary of State and accountability to Parliament.

    —  In tandem with this, we call for a clear and meaningful separation of the Governors from the Executive; a separate secretariat and clear public service remit for the Governors; and scrutiny of appointments to the Governors by Parliamentary Committee. We note the BBC's proposed reforms in some but not all of these areas.

  7.  On staffing matters, both in the regulators and the industry:

    —  We seek fair treatment for the staff of existing regulators in respect of job security and conditions of service.

    —  We support the duty of OFCOM to promote opportunities for training and retraining and call for the regulator to work with Skillset, the industry's Sector Skills Council, to this end.

    —  We support the duty of OFCOM to promote all aspects of equality of opportunity in employment in the industry and call for the regulator to take forward the initial work of the industry's Cultural Diversity Network.


  8.  We regard the media ownership proposals as dangerously and unjustifiably deregulatory, especially in respect of the ending of restrictions on non-EU ownership. Taken together with the proposed light touch approach to content regulation, we believe this threatens the future of public service broadcasting (PSB) in the UK. In our view, the quality and range of programming currently provided in the UK broadcasting system is guaranteed by strong and committed regulation rather than market forces and competition. We believe both quality in programming and pluralism in ownership are likely to diminish irretrievably if the Bill remains unamended.

  9.  Our specific views on the ownership proposals are as follows:

    —  We oppose the removal of restrictions on non-EU ownership of ITV/C5. We believe this will hand ownership of significant parts of British broadcasting to global, especially American, corporate interests. We see no significant economic benefit and a clear cultural loss—with corporate priorities determined outside the UK and a much greater pressure to import American programming. We note the complete lack of reciprocity in terms of access to ownership of US companies.

    —  We welcome the retention of cross-ownership restrictions as between national newspapers and C3 but see no reason, other than realpolitik, for such restrictions to be lifted in respect of C5.

    —  We take the view that single ownership within all or an overwhelming proportion of ITV is unacceptable without clear and meaningful commitments on ITV regional production (see below).

    —  We oppose the lifting of the prohibition on ownership by advertising agencies (on grounds of conflict of interest between advertising and editorial concerns); and the weakening of restrictions applying to religious organisations.

    —  We have major reservations about further deregulation of ownership in radio and specifically oppose the deregulation of ownership in respect of national commercial radio.

    —  On the review of ownership rules, we continue to have a strong preference that issues of media ownership are dealt with through primary legislation and therefore do not support the model of three yearly review by OFCOM followed by possible secondary legislation.

  10.  In respect of the further development of communications networks:

    —  We continue to support ``must carry'' provisions securing the right for all PSB channels to be carried on all the main platforms.

    —  We support in principle the proposal for a charge on satellite operators for the use of spectrum—as long as this is to be born by the satellite broadcaster rather than the individual owners of satellite dishes. We regard this as fair equivalent to the licence fees paid by terrestrial broadcasters.


  11.  We welcome the Government's commitment to maintaining the role of public service broadcasting. However, we remain unconvinced that this commitment is fully compatible with the Government's avowedly light-touch approach and in particular with the proposed self regulation for the qualitative PSB regulations covered by Tier 3.

  12.  We do not believe that high quality and a broad range of programmes can be adequately delivered and monitored through self-regulation by the broadcasters. We do not believe it is sufficient for OFCOM to investigate retrospectively whether broadcasters have fulfilled their annual commitments in this respect. Rather the self-regulation by the broadcasters, we wish OFCOM to have a proactive and interventionist role in order to secure quality PSB standards. We believe OFCOM will need, at an early stage, 1 to demonstrate regulatory power in this area—especially in the context of proposed ownership deregulation.

  13.  Rather than dilute OFCOM's regulatory role in securing quality PSB programming, we recommend a step in exactly the opposite direction. We believe OFCOM should have the power to place positive programming commitments above the level of Tier 1 on non-PSB broadcasters such as BSkyB, who have sufficient resources and market share to take on additional programme obligations.

  14.  In respect of other content issues:

    —  We welcome the retention of Channel 4 as a statutory corporation.

    —  We welcome the new requirement on C3 licencees to provide adequate financial support to the nominated news provider in order to ensure the service is of high quality. The remorseless negotiating down of ITN's news contract is regrettable and should not be allowed to continue.


  15.  As indicted in the Introduction, this is the issue of the highest practical priority for BECTU. We believe any discussion of the place of the nations and regions within the proposed framework will be totally symbolic unless real and meaningful commitments are achieved in this area.

  16.  As the Government's earlier White Paper acknowledged, regional programme production has long been the strong and distinctive characteristic of ITV; strong regional production centres bring both economic and cultural benefits to regional economies; and they can help address geographical imbalances within the national television production industry. All of these arguments remain valid but in our view these benefits are now directly threatened by ownership deregulation.

  17.  We therefore believe the Government should be concerned, more than ever before, to secure:

    —  a broad range of regionally originated programming of high quality from each licence-holder and with a suitable proportion in peak time;

    —  the use of the full range of regionally based staff, freelances and production facilities;

    —  a guaranteed minimum contribution to the network from each licence-holder in proportion to their size.

  18.  Specifically in terms of the draft Bill as it applies to C3, we note the existence of the regional production quota and the regional programming quota. We further note the original production quota applying to all PSB broadcasters. We welcome all three quotas in principle.

  19.  However, we wish these provision to be strengthened:

    —  We note that there is no specific minimum level for the regional production and programming quotas but merely a level which is ``appropriate'', ``suitable'' or ``sufficient'' in the view of OFCOM. We believe these quota requirements should be strengthened by specific percentage proportions which either match or exceed current levels; and or by an additional requirement that each quota should be set at a level which is ``substantial and significant''.

    —  We note with concern that clause 193(2) requires the inclusion of a regional production quota only if OFCOM considers it appropriate. We take this to be a means of excluding GMTV (and only GMTV) from the quota. If so, this requires explicit clarification. In any event, we believe the regional production quota should be compulsory for all C3 licences other than GMTV and that this should be made explicit.

    —  We are clear that the original production quota applies not just to C3 but to all PSB broadcasters. We believe this should not just be ``appropriate'' but substantial, significant and either matching or exceeding current levels of original production for all such channels.

  20.  There is a real danger—in the context of the Government's other proposals—that the effect of the draft Bill will be the further decline of regional production and programming in ITV, thereby destroying the distinctive feature of the network. We believe this is undesirable not just on broadcasting grounds, but for broader economic and cultural reasons. We believe such a decline is avoidable—but only if we insist quota requirements which are compulsory, substantial and explicit. Without this strong regulation in favour of regional broadcasting, we fear the market forces unleashed by deregulation will fatally undermine the regional dimension of our broadcasting sector. This should not be allowed to happen.


  21.  We hope the Joint Committee will take note of our views on the issues raised above—particularly on ownership, on content regulation and above all on regional ITV production. We further hope the Committee will take the opportunity to recommend amendments to the Bill in these key areas.

May 2002

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