for diverse, democratic and accountable media

Response to ITC Consultation on Public Service Broadcasting (July 2000)

policies & issues |

Posted by Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom

1. Who We Are

The Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) was founded in 1979 to campaign for a more diverse, democratic and accountable media. One particular strand of our work has been to track and analyse the distorting impact which excessive media concentration can have on the democratic process, and on broader social, cultural and economic activities. The CPBF has a wide membership base, including trade unions, constituency Labour parties, educational and community groups, and individuals. Apart from Free Press, our bi-monthly bulletin, we also produce pamphlets and books on media policy and seek through public debates, conferences and campaigning activity to identify issues which reflect our core concerns. We also maintain an active Parliamentary presence.

2. The ITC Consultation on Public Service Broadcasting

The Campaign welcomes the ITC’s consultation on the future regulation of public service broadcasting. This is a matter of the greatest importance in shaping the media and communications resources which will be available to citizens in the future, and of great concern to the CPBF. At the same time, we are concerned that the consultation exercise, on its own, will not generate the wide-ranging public responses which have been lacking in shaping media policy. We have called on the government to put people at the heart of its policy making process by setting up a public inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting as part of a broader public inquiry into the future regulation of media and communications.

The Campaign considers that the nature of the government’s own consultation to date is inadequate. The issues are complex, affecting the political, cultural and social well being of the population and should be made subject to a longer, more searching and more open process of public inquiry. We therefore welcome the initiative of the ITC in seeking public views and in broadening the public debate but we also call for a greater commitment from government in order to establish the necessary conditions for extensive public consultation. Our response below should be read in conjunction with the CPBF’s other recent statements. These include our Comments for the Communications Reform White Paper (2000), and Putting People First (1998) our response to Regulating Communications: Approaching Convergence in the Information Age [CM 4022, HMSO, July 1998]. These and other policy statements are available from our web site

3. Role of PSB

Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) principles should be positive principles applied across all sectors of communications. We can see no reason why commercial operators should be excluded from adhering to these principles, other than that in the early stages of any enterprise it might be necessary to relax some requirements to allow for growth. The UK film industry has had a chequered record, primarily because it could never support a production base in the UK over a long period of time. Public service television has, however, ensured that the UK developed a very strong production base. In order to sustain and develop that base, with all the employment, skills and cultural consequences that flow from that, it is vital that public service principles are developed and sustained across the media. In the UK the BBC should remain a licence fee funded organisation working to public service principles. The ITV system should have its public service obligations restored, as should the bulk of commercial radio stations.

All digital and satellite services should be subject to positive public service requirements. No company should be allowed to transmit material to the public unless it meets certain minimal standards from the outset, and after a certain threshold has been passed it would be required to move towards providing a full public service as defined by the Communications Council for its sector. The threshold could be as varied as

[i] degree of concentration of ownership

[ii] share of advertising or subscription revenue

[iii] market share

[iv] share of voice in the media as a whole.

These obligations would differ for different sectors, but the presumption must be that as services and companies develop, so they must develop a greater degree of public service obligations. All licences should be readvertised at fixed periods, after a period of public consultation and open inquiry into their success.

4. Public service Broadcasting and the Market

The ITC draws on the Davies Committee report in arguing that the ‘economic rationale’ for PSB lies in the concept of market failure. Like Davies, however, market failure is then treated as if this represents the sum, or at least main rationale for PSB. Annex Viii of the Davies Committee Report states that spectrum scarcity together with the market failure arguments put forward there ‘provided the underlying rationale for public sector intervention in the broadcasting industry’ (Davies 1999: 204). This statement is historically inaccurate and highly misleading.

The rationale for PSB has been shaped by a wider set of concerns arising from freedom of expression and human rights, from citizenship, education, from the need to foster social and cultural diversity, and from the importance of the media in a democratic society. It is legitimate and valuable to supplement the arguments for public service broadcasting with arguments derived from economic theory. But it is wrong to supplant the public policy rationale for PSB, which has been shaped by a range of social and cultural concerns, with a narrowly economic analysis. While the latter is valuable in demonstrating the inadequacy of the case for the market to achieve PSB outcomes in a purely commercial system, nevetherless, on its own, the concept of ‘market failure’ leads to a deficient and limited model of PSB.

The Committee’s Annex, draws on the work of Andrew Graham but significantly narrows the scope of his analysis. Graham’s argument, which we share, is that market failure is only one of the reasons why a purely commercial broadcasting system would be undesirable. The market failure argument addresses certain deficiencies in the broadcasting market for consumers, but the importance of PSB and indeed the historical rationale for PSB is fundamentally derived from concepts of citizenship and democracy: ‘To offset market failure [public service broadcasting] should aim to expand quality and to extend individuals ideas of what they can achieve; to meet the requirements of citizenship it should provide for the needs of the community (or communities); to sustain democracy it should extend common knowledge and empower those that watch it or listen to it; and in industrial policy PSBs should concentrate on those areas in which they have already established a comparative advantage.’ (Graham 1999: 38)

The concept of market failure adopted by the Davies Committee Report follows the Peacock Committee (1986) in defining the role of the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, as offering programmes which the market would not otherwise provide. This ‘deficit’ model defines PSB negatively, as the ‘supplement’ of a commercial broadcasting system. But shaping PSB in response to the operations of the commercial market reverses the conditions which have given rise to PSB’s greatest strengths, which have included setting quality standards that have raised viewers and listeners expectations and shaped the performance of commercial broadcasters in the UK. The market failure approach has wide-ranging implications, not least in respect of competition regulation.

The Protocol on public broadcasting in the Treaty of Amsterdam (2 October 1997) acknowledges that, while subject to competition law, public broadcasting systems should be protected as they are ‘directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism.’ Within the broad framework of EU law and policy, member states are given the responsibility for defining and organising the public service remit and financial structure in their own way. We have argued elsewhere (Comments on the Communications White Paper) that the UK can and must take a lead in acknowledging and strengthening the role of public service broadcasting at both domestic and international levels. The Protocol was adopted in recognition of the threat that general competition law, to which all broadcasting organisations are subject, provides insufficient safeguards for PSB. The same concerns arise from the ‘market failure’ rationale applied on its own.

5. Towards a Longer Term Re-definition of PSB

The Campaign believes that there is a case for thinking through what public service obligations are, which is why we have consistently argued for a public inquiry. Nonetheless we do think that there is a negative and a positive side to this question. The negative side is that there should be a strict boundary drawn between commercial influence and the content of any media. We do not allow private sponsorship of our school system, we should not allow it in our media. The positive side is to think of ways to make sure that in all areas of the media, the principles of fairness, accountability, diversity and high standards are employed. In addition the media should be obliged to encourage all forms of expression and to address the needs of all groups in society.

6. PSB in the Private Sector

Broadcasting’s public service remit has been seriously threatened by “dumbing down" and the reduction of quality programming in both drama and current affairs, as recent reports from the Campaign for Quality Television and the International Broadcasting Trust have made abundantly clear, and it would be a matter of the greatest concern if commercial pressures were to accelerate this process. Public service principles represent powerful traditions, which readers, listeners and viewers do not just deserve but expect. It's also extremely important to stress the fact that the quality of “public service" media is inevitably affected by having to compete with media without that obligation, or with heavily reduced obligations.

In the UK, BBC and ITV programming has clearly been adversely affected by the need to maintain its audience share in competition with BSkyB, and any relaxing of ITV's public service principles would clearly have a knock-on effect on BBC1, since the BBC has to retain high audience figures there in order to justify the political argument for the licence fee. The example of RAI in Italy, driven into the gutter by competition from Berlusconi's commercial TV monopoly, must be borne seriously in mind here, as should the example of the British press. There is a crucial need to protect the regional needs and demands of audiences. There are serious concerns about the effects on ITV franchises of the mergers that have already taken place.

Five years ago it was Tyne Tees that lost all its local programming except news and current affairs when YTV took it over; then it was Birmingham when Carlton/Central shifted production to Nottingham. Today it is Grampian with the ITC investigating a run-down at the hands of SMG. Tomorrow it will be Border as Granada does the same. And the day after it will be everywhere else if reports that the government favours a single ITV licence are to be believed. We have heard much recently about why car production must not be allowed to leave the West Midlands, but rather less of 'regional' broadcasting leaving the regions. Even as 'consumers', are audiences for news about where they live to be left to the tender mercies of an increasingly monopolised (and, in some cases foreign-owned) local press?

7. PSB and Regulation

The Campaign believes that there will continue to be a need for accountable, positive regulation across all sectors of mass communication, just as there will continue to be a need for such regulation across education and health. The experience of mass communications industries in Australia and the USA, for example, where public regulation has been weakened or has always been weak, has been that the quality and balance of publicly available information has been undermined. In the UK, since the 1990 Broadcasting Act, where the capacity of the ITC to make commercial broadcasters spend profits on programmes has been eroded, has led to a decline in ITV audiences, a decline in quality and a reduction in news and current affairs in peak time.

This resulted not from the mysterious hand of the market, but from the conscious acts of politicians and civil servants who had taken a clear decision to undermine public service broadcasting. We believe it is now time for the government to take positive action to promote positive regulation. Any regulatory structure needs to be accountable; it should be based on the principle that the regulators should represent the range of public interests concerned with mass communications. This means a system of nomination and election, plus a strong system of regional elected bodies with a say in regulation.

Currently the system of appointing regulators is opaque and remains open to the persistent criticism that those appointed are 'safe' people who will fit in with the current thinking at government, civil service and industry level. It is indeed a deeply elitist system offending against elementary principles of representative democracy. We propose that any future regulator regime should be devised after a full public inquiry. Regulation should combine the following:

[i] A permanent Standing Commission on media policy. This should be elected where possible and have a brief to monitor the development of communications policy in the public interest and to consult and develop policy for submission to the public and Parliament for debate. All of its activities should be open to the public. This would provide a context for the ongoing development of public debate about the industry.

[ii] There should be a democratically elected Communications Council. Its job would be to supervise and co-ordinate cross-regulatory issues of ownership, carriage, access, and standards in the industry, and to promote public access and public service standards across all the industry. It would have the power to raise a levy on income from advertising and sponsorship to fund community based media initiatives across all media. In selective cases it would have the power to override sector specific regulators.

[iii] There should be separate, democratically elected sector specific bodies which would look at the way public service values could be delivered in the areas, award licences and set enforceable standards. These sector specific bodies could evolve over time depending on change in the industry, but for the foreseeable future would involve comprise ones for radio, the press, television (across all platforms) and the Internet. The reason for this is that these are the areas which will remain the dominant means of transmission in the foreseeable future, and given the different types of use of each by audiences they need different kinds of regulation. Licences would be awarded for fixed periods and then readvertised; there would be no rolling licences. These bodies would be responsible for implementing standards across their sectors. The BBC would be governed by a separate, elected, body, but subject to scrutiny and report by the various sector specific bodies where appropriate.

DATELINE: 24 January, 2010