Getting public service broadcasting reviews "just right"

Public Service Broadcasting needs a review that raises its head above the parapet and surveys the changing media landscape, argues Richard Collins.
Richard Collins
7 July 2010

Too much, too little or just right? Goldilocks posed this question in respect of the temperature of the bears’ plates of porridge. She was fortunate enough to find that, among the options on the table, there was one which was “just right”. But no such luck when we latter day Goldilocks consider UK media policy reviews. We have both too many and too few of those. Too many, in that Ofcom reviews public service broadcasting at least once every five years (the next is likely to be in 2013); periodically the BBC reviews itself (one is tempted to state “as seldom as it needs to do so as to secure a licence fee settlement and Charter renewal”); both houses of parliament have select committees on communications; Scotland established its own Broadcasting Commission (which reported in 2008); and there are a host of ad hoc studies and reports of varying quality, relevance and legitimacy. But none of these is “just right”.

Too few in that we haven’t had a review which looks at the UK’s media as a whole and reviewed it all – television, radio, web content, print – in the context of unprecedentedly rapid and comprehensive change. Change that buzzwords like globalisation, convergence, disintermediation, concentration, falling entry barriers, dumbing down, hint at but do not systematically and intelligibly capture. We have too many sector and institution specific studies and too few large scale integrated analyses. Too hot, too cold but not yet right at all. It is a very long time since Government sponsored a comprehensive review of individual media sectors and it has never commissioned a review of the media as a whole. We have to go back to the early 1960s, fifty years ago, for a Royal Commission on the Press and to 1986 (nearly twenty five years ago), for a large scale study of UK broadcasting.

Why do we need such a review? Because we haven’t got either simple, principle based, law and regulation or a secure system of realising public service objectives in radically changed circumstances. The Communications Act 2003 (CA 2003), drafted as future proof legislation, has been shown in less than a decade to be unequal to contemporary challenges. The CA 2003 is a document of Byzantine complexity and prodigious length: by some counts it gives more than 260 separate duties to Ofcom and the text of the Act, perhaps the longest on the Statute Book, runs to 411 Clauses and 19 Schedules (many of multiple parts). The Act increasingly looks like a mission statement of the Circumlocution Office.

But, a more important answer is that the UK’s media are in crisis and our “legacy” institutions and interventions don’t meet our current and future needs. There are four big interconnected stories – convergence, globalisation, the shift of advertising spends away from “legacy” media (where for a hundred years or more they have funded news gathering and dissemination) to the internet and, fourth, the BBC’s simultaneous disproportionate institutional growth and degeneration of mission All of these, separately and together, put in question the practices and institutions through which people in the UK have access to diverse, high quality, independent and locally and nationally relevant media at affordable prices.

Convergence is scrambling the boundaries between public and private communication – are “Facebook” and “YouTube” public or private media of communication? The same boundary erosion is evident elsewhere: once users and producers were clearly identifiable – now “prosumers” abound, opening up novel relationships presenting both problems and opportunities. Moreover, convergence means that the familiar distinctions between different media, television, radio, newspapers and film are falling away. More and more hybrids and substitutes are eroding the time-honoured distinctions on which our law, regulation and media institutions have been founded. These changes, despite delivering some valued benefits to users, mean that our “legacy”, platform/technology based, policy and regulatory regimes are failing to achieve their goals.

Globalisation means that we can use media from outside the UK without a UK based intermediary much more readily than before (and UK media can extend their user bases and markets). Some media services entering the UK are professional: such as the TV like Joost and Veoh, a radio station or newspaper site from Poland, South Africa or elsewhere. Others offer user generated content (anything from porn to CafeBabel); and hybridised content - such as the wedding of Princess Victoria of Sweden professionally streamed by Swedish TV and re-worked on Facebook by Facebook users (adding translation, comment and explanation). New technologies have lowered the barriers to entry which formerly enabled governments to set the terms on which media firms provided services. Once upon a time, UK radio frequency spectrum was very valuable to broadcasters – accordingly government was able to require broadcasters to provide particular services. But latterly, these barriers have fallen through “new” technologies, such as TV satellites and the internet, and government thus has been, relatively, disempowered.

The globalisation argument may seem to founder on awkward empirical rocks such as most UK media consumption remaining, as in most other countries, resolutely home based, But globalisation does make a difference even if in actual consumption of exogenous media is marginal. Globalisation enables firms wanting to serve particular national markets from outside the country in question with ways to do so without having to conform to national regulation. The UK provides a good example of this process having become a choice stepping off point for television services targeting other European countries – not least because UK regulation permits advertising forbidden elsewhere. And the ability to “end-run” regulation changes regulation itself – rules become discredited if they can readily be flouted. So, “negative” regulation (stopping things) is now falling away, leaving “positive” regulation (subsidy, public institutions to encourage desired behaviour and provision) as the most effective instruments of public policy. Globalisation makes some difference to what UK users watch, listen to and read but a lot more difference to the terms on which media firms can serve UK markets.

Thirdly, the advertising which has subsidised the price of UK mass media and funded accessible and (reasonably) authoritative news, since the C19th and before is leaking away from “legacy” media. Newspapers’ cover prices were subsidised by advertising – in the most extreme case of free sheets, such as Metro, papers have been wholly advertising funded. Commercial terrestrial television and radio (the BBC excepted) have been the “free sheets of the air” with advertising similarly funding their content and distribution. But the internet has dried up “legacy media’s” revenue streams from both display and classified advertising. Classified advertising has gone to eBay and to specialised recruitment and property websites. Display advertising expenditure has been reversioned as search advertising on Google, Yahoo and the like. This has had a profound, though uneven, effect on the press and broadcasting with local newspapers probably suffering most and radio least. In consequence some localities, which formerly were served by one or more media, have lost some or all of their news providers and, pretty well everywhere, editorial and journalistic quality has been threatened and media concentration increased.

The “external” factors - convergence, globalisation, and the re-structuring of the UK advertising market, all of which have changed the economics of UK media - are complemented by an “internal” factor: changes in the character of UK public intervention. Notably in the BBC but Channel 4, the Film Council and so on are also relevant. The BBC is the most salient case in point because of its overwhelming size – turning over more than £4bn a year. The BBC is now controversial, both because it has latterly been perceived as a poor custodian of public resources (inflated executive salaries and expenses, excessive spending on “talent”, weak performance under external audit etc); and also because its size and resourcing are seen as disproportionately large – particularly in a context where the BBC’s growth, fuelled by rising licence fee revenues, contrasts with the decline experienced by its advertising funded counterparts. Further, the BBC has moved too far from its public service mandate (“dumbing down” programming, resiling from its universal service vocation in providing partial, not universal, coverage on some platforms, encryption of services etc). Its recent “Strategy Review” (discussed extensively in postings on the Public Service Broadcasting Forum) is inadequate, both as a general guide to reflection and policy formation and because it is self-interested and self-regarding (in both the best and worse senses).

All this means that the institutional instruments and regulatory, governance and funding regimes which formerly ensured that most UK media users were able to enjoy a plurality of varied and high quality services, pervasively available at affordable prices, have lost much of their power to secure public policy goals and not a little of their legitimacy. Circumstances have changed - but too few of the UK’s media regimes and institutions have changed sufficiently to meet the new challenges and secure their mandated public policy goals. But crisis is not a wholly bad thing – crises bring opportunities and sometimes the destructive storms which blow turn out to be Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction. Threats are matched by opportunities and what is a crisis for particular institutions and interests may turn out to provide, as in this case, opportunities for new entrants and new ways to secure public interest objectives.

There is much that is new and promising in the UK media landscape. Barriers to entry have fallen and a host of online minnows, often experiencing only a mayfly (to mix a piscatorial with an entomological metaphor) life, now provide public service content. openDemocracy is one among several outstanding cases in point. Sites providing curated and direct access to cultural, scientific and intellectual activity, spectacle and debate testify both to the actual range and depth of new media public service and public interest content. These pioneers testify even more powerfully to the potential of new media to contribute to public service content provision. Not only do new media provide channels through which new and different providers can reach users but they offer an interactive capacity, at best enabling constructive collaboration, collective deliberation and mutually respectful debate, properties which are, at best, weakly present in “legacy”, one-to-many, mass media.

Both threats and opportunities point to the need for a serious, large scale and authoritative review of what should come next for UK media. The review should consider our legacy institutions, their legal and regulatory underpinnings and whether the current scope, scale and manner of public intervention should be re-considered. Up until the 70s such a review would have taken the form of a Royal Commission –a title that’s now a rather quaint archaism – but whatever it’s to be called a thorough, disinterested and comprehensive public enquiry is now overdue. It is a very long time since there was any significant, sustained, formal and disinterested deliberation on the state of the UK’s media and its future. In broadcasting, the Peacock Report of 1986 was the last major public enquiry (preceded by the Annan Report in the early ‘70s, the Pilkington Report in the ‘60s and the Beveridge Report in the late ‘40s). The press has been even more neglected – the last official review of the UK press, the McGregor Report, was in the early 1960s. Not only is it a long time since “legacy” media were reviewed in isolation from each other but new media, the internet, convergence and the cross-impacts between legacy and new media have never been formally reviewed. It is high time they were – and a Government sponsored, but not Government dominated, independent enquiry embracing both legacy and new media should start the process and start it soon. The remit should include proposals on how public service content should, henceforth, be provided and how the (difficult to reconcile) objectives of, on one hand, independence and pluralism and, on the other, public accountability should be secured. For too long the three bears of UK media policy have had too much partial reporting and reflection and too little that’s both comprehensive and free of the distortion that comes when policies are shaped by interested parties: It’s time now for we Goldilocks to get it just right.

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