A report from a Committee of the UK’s House of Lords (the upper legislative chamber) looking at the issue of media convergence, and how public policy may need to do more to adapt and reform in its wake, has recommended that in advance of the next BBC Charter Review, the Government should conduct a comprehensive review of public service broadcasting in the round, to include not just the BBC but all other providers, driven by the concern that public service broadcasting could be sidelined by convergence.
The House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, which announced the inquiry August 2012, made the recommendation as part of a number of specific recommendations under three headings:
The Committee also recognises the increasing role played by content accessed over the open Internet and the important initiatives voluntarily undertaken to help guide and protect audiences there. This must broadly be the right approach; there should be no appetite to try and shackle the extraordinary opportunities presented by the Internet. At present, however, these initiatives are somewhat diffuse and sporadic. It recommends that a more co-ordinated approach to self-regulation be introduced in which the expectations of the UK public are clearly articulated and digital intermediaries are encouraged to meet them.
“None of this is easy, and predicting the pace of change is in many respects a foolish enterprise, but imaginative thinking is required to ensure that the UK’s media remains at the head of the top table,” concludes the Committee, which confirmed that the “very important issue”of plurality – ensuring a range of viewpoints and that no one voice holds too much influence – would be the subject of its next inquiry.
Ahead of the Government’s imminent White Paper on communications, the Committee also recommends that:
According to Committee Chairman, Lord Inglewood, the media has been at the top of the news agenda for some time, but the debate has been too insular and vital issues have been left out of the discussions, particularly around the changing way in which media is consumed nowadays.
“The elephant in the room has been the impact of technological change – the Internet. Sitting over most of the media we consume is a complicated framework of rules and regulations. These are supposed to make sure the content the UK public engages with meets their expectations. However, the simple days have gone. Content does not just reach us from three or four TV channels but from all over the world and from sources which do not fit into neat categories like TV, radio or newspapers. The boundaries between the different ways we access content are blurring so fast that the framework which sits over them is losing its grip. Eventually, we will reach a certain point where it will stop doing its job of ensuring content meets the public’s expectations, and as a result will start to lose their trust. This is a serious risk and means that regulation must become much smarter and more flexible to encompass a converging media world, with regulation less fixated on how content is delivered or where it comes from,” he warned.
He said that because the media landscape is changing at such a pace, the Government must ensure that the legislation which creates the framework overseeing content remains relevant for the life of each Communications Act. “The Committee believes the Act itself needs to be flexible, allowing for amendments to be made in the interim years between wholesale rewrites. In this way, the Government will future-proof legislation to ensure that regulation can adapt quickly to changes brought about by media convergence as they emerge.”
“The Internet has driven extraordinary changes in the media landscape and the barriers to anyone creating content and sharing it with the world are much lower. However, the people who make that content available to UK audiences do not necessarily know what UK consumers expect from it. We would like to see Ofcom charged with researching audience expectations and providing the findings to platforms such as Google, YouTube and ISPs, allowing them to match their voluntary initiatives as far as possible to the expectations of UK audiences,” he declared.
“We are also concerned that public service broadcasting could be sidelined by convergence and we are urging the Government to act quickly to protect it. Whilst emerging competition from other television providers is hugely welcome in affording a far greater choice of programmes for the public, the enduring values of PSB must be safeguarded,” he asserted.
“The converged world is a marvellous place, breathing new life into creativity, competition, innovation and choice. People access different content in different ways and on different platforms; all of which operate and are regulated in slightly different ways. The Committee believes that consumers in the UK have a right to bring accurate expectations to content, no matter what it is or how they access it; the challenge now is for the Government to act quickly enough to ensure that this happens,” he concluded.
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, described the suggestion that YouTube and Netflix should be regulated by Ofcom, as “unnecessary” adding that if the Internet was out-competing television, then “great”.
“The Lords often make very helpful contributions to legislative debates, but this really isn’t one of them. There are huge amounts of regulation constraining Internet providers, from eCommerce to copyright, that cover the necessary ground already. We understand the Lords are looking for ‘voluntary’ participation in Ofcom’s content regulation, but these kinds of voluntary arrangement are rarely truly voluntary. Usually the government threatens legislation if the required ‘volunteering’ doesn’t take place,” he suggested.
He also said the call to include “regulation of converging media content” in the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement was “very dangerous. Intellectual property laws should be kept out of TAFTA,” he declared.