Tony Ballard Jun 07

Is the Government’s strategy on public service broadcasting moving in the wrong direction? Tony Ballard, broadcasting and telecommunications lawyer with Harbottle & Lewis and regular contributor to the Digital Media Law Blog, questions whether the Government’s plan for public service broadcasting contained in its latest Strategy Document departs from its previous policy on tackling the new media environment.



Government strategy in relation to public service broadcasting (PSB) appears to be going backwards.

Digital Britain

Broadcasting policy in this country is largely the fruit of earnest committees that have sat and studied the structure and function of broadcasting every ten years or so since the 1920s. The most recent, more racy than most, was the Carter review which led to the Digital Britain Report in 2009. That was a government white paper. It concluded that the current PSB regime was not going to survive the transition to a fully digital Britain and that the analysis and prescriptions for managing it are more likely to be effective if they start from the premise that the structure and set of entities which have been collectively known as PSB are over.

Now, in “Connectivity, Content and Consumers/Britain’s digital platform for growth”, a government strategy document falling some way short of a white paper (published 30 July), the government starts from a quite different and deeply conservative premise. Far from building on Carter’s perception of public service content coming from a much wider range of sources than the broadcasters, and in an environment in which content is consumed actively through search and demand, the government has instead fallen back on the old institutional model of PSB and is suggesting ways of protecting it in the new environment.

Institutional PSB

What it says is in effect that the PSB model is built on a deal, whereby the PSBs accept obligations such as quality, accessibility and variety in return for privileges such as the licence fee, access to spectrum and a statutory right to prominence in EPGs. This is not exactly a novel perception.

To help preserve the success of the model in the new environment, the government proposes three things. First, to consult on how the PSBs’ current prominence in EPGs can be maintained in the online environment. Second, to consult on how to put an end to PSBs having to pay to be carried on certain platforms. And third that industry itself should think about transmission options, bearing in mind the demand for spectrum for the conveyance of mobile data. That is just about all. Certainly there is no discussion or even reference to the developing concept of public service content, as tentatively explored in the Digital Economy Act. It is as if the government has decided that PSB is and is to remain the exclusive preserve of the existing institutions – the BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and S4C – for the foreseeable future. If that is so, it would be helpful to have reasons but few are given and it is hard to divine the rest from the text of the paper.

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that such a radical departure from the path indicated in the Digital Britain Report deserves a fuller explanation.

It is not as though the government is unaware of the challenges of the new environment. A consultation paper on media ownership and plurality was launched at the same time as the strategy document and suggests a new approach to the topic in light of the new technologies and the forward movement of the media market. There may be good reason for what appears to be a retrograde step and a lack of ambition for PSB in government strategy but if there is it is not explained.

Losing the initiative

There is also cause for alarm. In another almost contemporaneous document, in which the government offers an explanation of certain modifications being made to Ofcom’s functions by statutory instrument, it sets out a description of PSB which few will recognise except in the most general terms. PSB, it says, is broadcasting which is intended for and will benefit the public rather than a purely commercial operation and which has generally come to mean four things: to increase our understanding of the world, to stimulate knowledge and learning, to reflect the cultural identity of the UK and to ensure diversity and alternative viewpoints. Not since Peacock has PSB been reduced to such a brief description but it lacks Peacock’s hard edge. Gone is the careful enumeration of the features of PSB, translated into legislation in 2003. Nor is there any recognition of the new environment.

In Europe, where public service broadcasting occupies a privileged position in the European legal order, analysis and prescriptions for managing the transition to the new environment are flourishing, as illustrated by the Parliament’s adoption last month (4 July) of a resolution on connected TV, best described as a call for the European Commission to revisit media regulation generally.

It would be a matter of some regret if the lead that the UK might have established in the development of public service media, based on the work of the Carter committee, were now abandoned without some better explanation than that evinced by this disappointingly coy strategy document.

Note: This post originally appeared on 31 July 2013 on the Digital Media Law Blog and is re-posted here with permission and thanks. This article gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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