Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the National Union of Journalists



  Building on our submission to the first call for evidence we would initially reiterate that for the National Union of Journalists the primary issue in this debate is that journalism matters in terms of democratic development and social accountability. These require an objective media to provide a well informed public with balanced news coverage. We have identified key areas that are examined from the standpoint of a critically constructive approach, looking at their manifestation in all sectors of the media, especially in newspapers and broadcasting.

  In answering the questions posed in the second call for evidence we have sought to draw out the importance of media ownership as a key factor influencing all others, and thus having a greatly significant impact on the quality, variety and objectivity of news and information.

  The primary focus here is on broadcasting. However, that should not deter from the fact that we have a far wider perspective on the impact of media ownership in general and we would be happy to elaborate on this further, should we be invited to give oral evidence.

1.  Are the requirements in the Communications Act 2003 relating to the quality, quantity, scheduling and impartiality of national and regional broadcast news appropriate? Are they sufficient? Will they be appropriate and will they be sufficient after digital switchover?

  With digital switchover in progress it is vital that the new ecology of broadcasting in the digital age is determined now and not left until it is too late. We have concerns around how existing commitments on public service broadcasting are being met and how they can continue to be delivered in the future.

  In the light of the recent announcement by ITV of its intentions to drastically reduce its regional news coverage this need has become even more acute. Ofcom has a responsibility to fulfil its legal obligations to "maintain and strengthen" public service broadcasting in the UK. We have urged Ofcom to be open minded about alternative models for funding regional news some of which are detailed below.

  The NUJ is looking at the regulatory and statutory options for ensuring a strong future for PSB programming. In particular, we are looking at ways to maintain and strengthen regional, national and international news coverage.

  The NUJ believes that significant public service programming including regional news and non-news should be made available free to air, on all platforms. We believe the Government should set the regulatory framework and ask Ofcom to ensure its policies are carried out.

  It is not the case that regulation is more difficult post switchover. The scarcity of DTT spectrum and the range of delivery options available shows that a new system, based on the principle of universality and the provision of PSB programming, can be the basis for a new compact.

  So far, the debate around PSB post-switchover has concentrated on the idea that the regulator has fewer incentives to offer broadcasters in order to persuade them to continue (or commence) significant public service broadcasting.

  However this is not the case. Primary legislation may be required but new levers could be deployed to ensure that quality PSB continues.

  Tax exemptions or reductions concerning licence fees and spectrum fees (if these are introduced) should be among the options considered.

  Other possible measures are outlined below:

Digital Spectrum

  Ofcom and the Government are currently considering what to do with the new spectrum available once the analogue spectrum has been switched off. Some of the terrestrial PSB organisations are lobbying to be given gifted spectrum (to be used for HDTV). If this were to happen, it would greatly benefit the citizen, many of whom are expecting to receive a free-to-air HD service post switchover.

  Free-to-air HD television is something that would serve audiences well and should be part of public policy. However, the NUJ believes that spectrum should only be given in return for specific PSB commitments.

  In the same way that the analogue PSB compact relied on the terrestrial broadcasters providing certain desirable PSB goals in return for access to the analogue spectrum, some spectrum capacity should be set aside for PSB organisations that guarantee to provide continued PSB commitments.

  ITV PSB commitments have been relaxed in recent years. This is something the NUJ has campaigned against. However, at present for ITV, the key component of their PSB offering remains their local, national and international news.

Listed events

  In analogue terrestrial television, the Government has enshrined certain `listed' events (eg sporting) in legislation. These must be available to the public free-to-air. In the digital age broadcasters holding PSB status could be given certain commercial advantages in bidding for these specified "listed" events. As above, in return, broadcasters would commit to providing free-to-air content across all platforms, including providing specific PSB characteristics such as regional, national and international news.

  Regarding the current debate around ITV's news provision, we note the Ofcom suggestion that national and international news would continue even if there were no regulation on ITV1. However, the NUJ does not accept this view. It is imperative that ITV remains committed to providing a quality news service. Although the economics of such programming remain favourable, and the current leadership of ITV appear committed to national and international news, this cannot be taken for granted. Owners change, as do the economics of broadcasting. Therefore any review of the Communications Act needs to consider how to "future-proof" the delivery of this public good by ensuring that effective regulation is in place.

2.  Are the public interest considerations for media mergers set down in section 58 of the Enterprise Act 2002 strong and clear enough to protect a diverse and high quality news media? Are the conditions under which the Secretary of State can order a public interest investigation appropriate?

  The NUJ has strongly welcomed the process under which the decision was taken by Business Secretary John Hutton to order BSkyB to cut its stake in ITV.

  The minister's decision was in line with the recommendations of a Competition Commission report, published in December, which found that BSkyB's shareholding has the potential to distort competition. We continue to believe that the legal powers that were exercised throughout this process should not, in any way, be weakened, lest they become so weak as to be incapable of defending the public interest.

  While, in this case, we welcome the thorough way in which the procedures were applied, the question has to be raised as to whether the powers in the Enterprise Act are sufficient as we question whether such anti-competitive acquisitions should be allowed to take place in the first instance.

  In light of the seemingly ambiguous position that prevails at present we would urge that more robust regulation be considered in order to prevent such actions, without such a complicated process being necessary before the Secretary of State can order a public investigation.

3.  Do current national and local cross-media and single sector media ownership rules set out in UK legislation do enough to ensure a high quality and diverse news media? Or now that most news organizations are moving towards multi-platform operations, have these rules outlived their usefulness and relevance? In this context are there effective actions that can be adopted by news organizations to protect the public interest?

  Overall, in the local media for example, while cost cutting exercises have negatively impacted on the ability of editorial staff to maintain standards, those staff have continued to give quality service to the public based upon obligations that they feel as a result of loyalty to their readerships.

  The lack of regulation, however, has shown the potential for this to be undermined. This is exemplified in the case of the aborted sale by DMGT of its Northcliffe Newspapers division last year, before it was taken off the market after the bids received were said not to be high enough. This is an example of the lack of public accountability on the part of media owners.

  No public consultation was ever conducted on the proposed sale and neither was it legally required, meaning the communities that Northcliffe newspapers serve had no opportunity to raise local interests. Neither were journalists and trade unionists who represent them ever consulted over the matter, indicating a lack of concern about what would be the best vehicle to maintain editorial quality.

  The system of sealed bids allowed for neither accountabilty nor transparency in circumstances where there was no openly stated criteria covering the need of these publications to adequately serve their readership and the public at large.

4.  Do any problems arise from having four bodies involved in the regulation of media markets (the OFT, Ofcom, the Competition Commission and the Secretary of State)? Are there any desirable reforms that would improve the effectiveness of the regulatory regime?

  The NUJ believes that; putting aside the cumbersome nature of multi-agency regulation; the substantive issue involved here is that of the need to end a situation that currently prevails, whereby bodies that operate solely upon economic criteria are used to monitor and regulate the media.

  It is our contention that the media is a special case, in that there is a specific need to ensure the quality and diversity of programming and that such specifications ought to be included in an updated Communications Act. Following on from this, it should then be ensured that satisfactory institutional arrangements are put into place in order to ensure implementation of such requirements.

5.  Has the lifting of all restrictions on foreign ownership of UK media affected the quality and independence of the UK news media, or will it affect it in the future? Has the UK industry benefited, or does in stand to benefit in the future?

  The NUJ believes that unrestricted foreign ownership has the potential to carry with it the danger of domination by multinational companies. We are concerned that this could have a detrimental effect on the plurality and diversity of the media and ultimately its quality. If called to give oral evidence, the NUJ would be happy to provide examples in relation to this question.

  We believe that greater thought has to be exercised in order that the public interest is ensured, by greater regulation over non-UK media ownership.

6 February 2008

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