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UK Lords propose PSB review

March 27, 2013

By Colin Mann

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:

  • On content standards, the Committee argues that for the time bein, broadcast regulation can continue to co-exist with both on demand and press regulation without disrupting audiences’ ability to build accurate expectations about the content they encounter. However, the framework within which these regulators fit will need updating, in time, to ensure consumer trust and confidence can be maintained. In the Committee’s view, this will involve placing much audiovisual content on an equal regulatory footing, and as familiar protections such as the watershed may not apply universally across this content, a system of guidance and age-rating will need to be introduced to ensure audiences can make informed decisions about what it suits them and their families to watch.

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.

  • On content creation, it argues that in a converged world, public service content will remain very important, if not more so, but will face challenges to its funding and effectiveness. “We recommend 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,” says the Committee. “We also propose various more immediate, but potentially valuable, regulatory measures to help support public service broadcasting. In particular, we deem it essential that measures are taken on prominence to ensure that audiences are able to discover and access public service content easily in a converged world.”
  • On competition, the Committee suggests clarifying Ofcom’s competition powers in certain areas, but ensuring that high hurdles have to be overcome before intervention is allowed. “What is more, we consider the BBC’s economic impact and reflect on how this might best promote the public good, whilst reassuring the market, above all the newspaper industry, that it too has a secure foothold in the converged world,” it states.

“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:

  • the dynamism of the media sector today means that the existing pattern of updating the Communications Bill every ten years or so no longer provides an adequate basis for regulating the media industry, so the Government must ensure that forthcoming legislation is drafted in such a way as to enable flexibility to adapt to an ever changing media environment;
  • new technologies and behaviours are evolving more quickly than regulatory protections and so action is required to ensure a safer environment for content accessed via the internet and to continue to meet public expectations of content standards;
  • the Government should charge Ofcom with conducting research into what UK audiences expect in terms of the standards of internet content available through digital intermediaries such as internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines;
  • the Government and Ofcom need to get ahead of the curve on shaping profoundly different regulatory arrangements by joining up regulation across the media as a whole;
  • consideration must be given to the BBC’s economic impact, how this might best promote the public good and what action should be taken to ensure the prominence of PSB is maintained. At the same time, the market – above all the newspaper industry – must be reassured that it too has a secure foothold in the converged world.

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.

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