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Public Service Broadcasting, The Forum so far - a synopsis

After a successful conference, we summarise contributions to the Public Service Broadcasting Forum so far.
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
11 June 2010

The publications of the Public Service Broadcasting Forum have been diverse in form and perspective. The Forum has ranged from the most searing of attacks on Sky - with Justin Lewis setting out the case for greater scrutiny and constraint of the BBC's biggest commercial rival: "it’s time we started asking tough questions about what [Sky] is doing to earn its privileged place in our media firmament", to – at the opposite end of the spectrum – David Graham calling for the replacement of the "unjust and unfair" licence fee with "a switch to voluntary subscription, at home and abroad".

This was precisely our intention. We launched in the hope of creating the broadest possible debate on the future of the BBC and PSB. There was a danger in launching a Forum tasked with exploring new models for PSB in such a fraught intellectual conflict zone, as Frank Field, who instigated the Forum, warned in his launch article: 

Because we are arguing for a change – though the point of the debate is to decide what that change might be – we may be cast as being part of the anti-BBC lobby. We are not.

The immediate spur to the Forum's launch was the publication of the BBC Strategy Review. We feared that the intended consultation process on the Strategy Review would be ineffective if it was not supported by a broader public debate on the principles and practicalities of Public Service Broadcasting. To that end we published a detailed walk-through of the public survey that constituted the BBC Trust's attempt at consultation. Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal, in accordance with a number of other responses to the Strategy Review, found the survey a mode of consultation that was imperfect, to say the least. In numerous areas, the newly laid-out principles that were to define the BBC were a mixture of platitudes and vague clarion-calls: 

What, for example, does Mark Thompson mean by "ambitious" drama? What makes for "outstanding" children's programming? Aspiring to the "best journalism in the world" is of course welcome, but such confidence in being able to produce "the best" smacks of the institutional mythology of the BBC referred to by Richard Collins and the misplaced faith in Britain having the "best television in the world". Is there a danger that, in striving to be the best, the BBC will neglect the output of other media organisations, even when that output is, in fact, better?

The media and public response to the Strategy Review had largely focussed on the proposed cutting of 6Music and the Asian Network. Unfortunately, such cuts overshadowed the statement of principles that made the Strategy Review novel. Richard Collins raised the possibility that the  diversion was deliberate:

This is, of course, genius of a Machiavellian kind, providing the BBC with a win-win scenario. If the sacrificial lamb radio services are closed, the BBC has shown it’s willing to tighten its belt and take the pain. But, please note, the smallest possible pain – these are the BBC’s tiniest national services. Or, to be more precise services available to the fewer than 90 percent who live in areas where digital radio can be received, don’t want to listen in the car and are among those who have a digital radio in the house. It’s making its contribution at a time when public finances are in trouble. And if they don’t close, then there’s prima facie evidence that what the BBC does is indispensable. 

We have also published a series of formal responses to the BBC Strategy Review, including those of the Institute of Welsh AffairsThe Citizens' Coalition for Public Service BroadcastingDirectors UK, the Newspaper SocietyBSkyBPactBECTUGoldsmith's Leverhulme Research Centre, the Writers' Guild of Great Britain, and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer.

A number of new institutional proposals were given an airing in the Forum. David Elstein set out the case for an independent Public Service Content Commission, funded out of a proportion of the licence fee and introducing the element of contestability that Ofcom had been exploring over previous years: 

[The Commission] would provide a logical counterweight to Ofcom, which has a statutory duty to monitor and report on public service broadcasting, but lacks any continuing mechanism or funding to remedy perceived deficiencies.
Ofcom would in this scenario still be responsible for regulating broadcast output, including the BBC’s, in terms of taste, decency, fairness and, perhaps, impartiality. Meanwhile, the PSCC would pro-actively engage with the full range of tasks involved in maintaining and delivering a rich mix of public service content in a flexible, plural and accountable fashion.

Blair Jenkins outlined proposals for a Scottish Digital Network, giving greater voice to Scottish-made public service content 

The new service would provide a wide range of public service content including extensive news and current affairs, but also entertainment, documentaries and drama. It would be ambitious, risk-taking, contemporary, bold, original and intelligent. It should transmit programmes that producers feel passionate about and that audiences love. It would be distinctively Scottish but with an outward-looking perspective – recognisably Scottish, but not relentlessly Scottish, which is the way most Scots like to be themselves. 

If as much is implemented it will be an object of envy in the rest of the UK. In Wales, Ron Jones outlined somewhat more conservative proposals for the rejeuvination of Welsh-language broadcasting and S4C:

This means prioritising Wales, its news and news-based programmes, current affairs, events and sport. When you add a range of public service programmes from history to culture many familiar factual programmes and entertainment may have to go. Defining what we want and need is a job for us all. We will have to think inclusively, making sure that S4C is for all Welsh-speakers, not just those with the most strident voices.

Proposals extended beyond broadcasting and the BBC. Jeremy Dear issued a passionate call for government action to support local newspapers delivering public service content: 

We need political action to save, build and sustain newsgathering. We’ve called for an economic stimulus plan for journalism with action aimed at encouraging a variety of voices, across all platforms, a greater plurality, maximised through a combination of different ownership models – commercial, public, mutual, employee, co-operative, for profit and not for profit.  New media could be stimulated through public support in the form of start-up grants, subsidised technology or training grants, solutions driven by journalists and communities themselves.

This integrative view of public service media would not be complete without reference to the internet. This was after all the setting for the forum. The web has given anyone mode to self-publicise their responses, ideas and views, whether on broadcast public service content or on developments relevant to them and their peers. Claire Wardle discussed how journalists could interact with this "user-generated content" to enhance public service content:  

For a short time, I struggled with the idea of training journalists how to use sites such as Facebook, caught up with the idea of these as private spaces, even if they were technically public. Very quickly however, I realised how journalists were connecting with a much broader spectrum of people – people who did not normally connect with the BBC. Previously the BBC would add a ‘post-form’ to the bottom of their online articles and ask people to get in touch. That type of reactive news-gathering meant the BBC was getting suggestions and materials from a very small section of the population. By being proactive and getting into the spaces where the audience is spending more of its time, it is broadening its sources, the types of stories it tells and how it tells them.

During the course of the Forum, a number of new developments pertaining to Public Service Broadcasting unfolded. Proposals to encrypt the BBC's digital broadcasting, with the possibility that it would then be impossible to record, led academics at the Open University to call on the Trust 

to undertake a new public value test in respect of the HDTV proposals which are currently before Ofcom and which we believe depart radically from the terms of the authorisation you earlier granted, break with the undertakings made in 2004 in Building Public Value and undesirably and disproportionately prefer the interests of rights holders over those of licence fee payers.

The running battle between Sky and the regulator took another turn when Ofcom issued its review on pay-tv. David Elstein gave an in depth account of Sky's tussle with state oversight and its commercial rivals over the years:

The headline has been that Ofcom is enforcing a wholesale price on BSkyB, whose response has been to complain bitterly about interference in commerce (as if all competition rules were not just such an interference), stifling of innovation (these are channels launched between eighteen and 22 years ago) and denying entrepreneurs a fair reward for risk (these channels have been profitable for at least seventeen years – drugs company patents, which involve much higher risk than signing a contract with the Premier League, are only allowed to run for seven years before generic versions are allowed to compete).
Yet beyond the headline, there were real concessions to BSkyB. Movie channels were excluded from the obligatory wholesale pricing, on the grounds that on-demand viewing was displacing linear scheduling of movies.  Instead, Ofcom chose to refer to the Competition Commission the issue of monthly subscriptions to on-demand movies, where BSkyB has secured the exclusive rights as part of its Hollywood deals, but barely exploits them. Ofcom believes there is a good case for making such warehoused rights non-exclusive.

The Digital Economy Act, though mainly notable for the changes and duties it imposed on Internet Service Providers, quietly attempted to rewrite the obligations of Channels 3 and 4, and originally included a proposal for Independently Financed News Consortia.  Both Channels seemed to have strayed from their conception as public service content providers. The Act, rushed through Parliament and subject to hasty compromises, seemed to David Elstein to have failed to reverse this decline: 

So here is a radical proposal. Sell the digital channels and all other investments. Withdraw Channel 4 from the advertising market-place.  Fund the £153 million needed for core public service, plus transmission and staff costs, out of 5% of the licence fee (£175 million) plus the income from the sale proceeds. Enough of the £750 million released back into the advertising market-place will flow to ITV to allow Ofcom to re-impose the modest PSB requirements – notably in relation to regional output – that it was planning to cancel.
Channel 4 would revert to a single task, with a fraction of its current staffing and overhead. The other part of its activities would sit squarely where they belong, in the private sector. The newly appointed Chief Executive, David Abraham, fresh from running UKTV, would be the ideal person to lead the sale of the non-core businesses. Director of Programmes Julian Bellamy would be an excellent person to sustain Channel 4’s PSB obligations. And the dismal consequences of this slack and mindless legislative “wash-up” process would be avoided. 

The most momentous development during the course of the forum was of course the election. The campaign exposed the need, as Anthony Barnett argued, for 

focus, because one of the emerging themes of this election is a general sense that no one is telling the truth. The media report this as if it is the fault of the politicians. But one of the reasons why we need non-commercial public service broadcasting is that we know there are deeper truths that it won’t profit vested or commercial interests to discuss. The lack of truthfulness is far more pervasive and in part is the responsibility of broadcasters, especially the BBC however much it may point to the relatively high degree of trust it has retained.

It is too early to determine the impact coalition government will have on Public Service Broadcasting. The manifestos of both governing parties made little mention of media policy. In office, what proposals there were were either dropped or scaled back considerably 

The pressure on the BBC elsewhere will ease.  There will not be a licence fee freeze (the Commons motion to that effect last year was “at a time of near-zero inflation”, says creative industries minister, Ed Vaizey, justifying the about-face).  The BBC’s governance system – in the present shape of the BBC Trust – will be subject to some change, but the nature and the timetable (clearly not this year) are undisclosed.  The 20:1 ratio between top and bottom salaries that is proposed for the public sector will not apply to the BBC, so Mark Thompson can hang on to his £800k per annum package.
There is no mention of CRR – the “contract rights renewal” formula restricting the way ITV prices its advertising slots.  ITV was hoping it would be removed by direct ministerial action, but Steve Hewlett’s post on this explains why any intervention by the government would draw ridicule.  The pre-election Conservative rhetoric about curbing the powers of the media regulator, Ofcom, is likewise nowhere in evidence in the post-election coalition document.

Thankfully, we were not alone in sensing the need for greater debate of Public Service Broadcasting; several other conferences and symposia examined the issues from a variety of perspectives. We made efforts to record and report on these, including Westminster University's web-focused event, Public Service Media in the Digital Age; The City University Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism's assessment of the prevailing winds at a time of pre-election and economic uncertainty, with Public Service Broadcasting facing a likely assault; the Future of British Television symposium which looked at the likely cuts the BBC was to face and the need for diversity within the media; and Mark Thompson's talk at Chatham House on the BBC's global mission.

We also relayed recent research developments in the field, republishing Mark Oliver's Demos study, and providing spaces for Erin van der Maas to discuss Carnegie UK's report on civil society and the media, and Petros Iosifidis to summarise the findings of his recently released edited collection, Reinventing Public Service Communication. At tomorrow's symposium, we hope to harvest a wealth of new material, which in addition to that published so far will remain a freely available, valuable educational resource for all those engaging with the issues raised by Public Service Broadcasting in the future.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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