Broadcast execs call for swift Media Bill progress
April 28, 2023
By Colin Mann
UK broadcast industry executives have called for swift progress on enacting the proposed Media Bill stressing that it must be future-proofed to avoid issues arising, as has become the case with existing legislation, which is 20 years-old.
Delivering a keynote speech on ‘the future for the BBC – audiences, mission, scope and priorities, UK and global role, funding, and distribution’ at a Westminster Media Forum policy conference on ‘The Media Bill and the future of public service broadcasting in the UK’, Clare Sumner, Director, Policy at the BBC, called on parliamentarians and legislators to make “quick progress” on bringing the Bill into law and was “future-proofed” to ensure the sector is protected.
“Every day that passes , before this passes into law makes it harder for the BBC and others to ensure that audiences in the UK have a real choice and can access great British public service broadcasters and UK audio easily,” she stated, acknowledging that one of the Bill’s aims was to enable the UK’s Public Service Broadcasters to thrive in the global market. “Legislation like this sems to come round very rarely and equally importantly is getting the details right.”
“Primary legislation must clearly set out what prominence means in a way that is future-proofed, and enables innovation. If we are only going to do this every 20 years, then given the pace of the media market, don we need to ensure it’s future-proofed so that we’re not waiting another 20 years, where the market will have moved on, and so will life.”
She welcomed recent regulatory developments such as Ofcom’s proposed changes to the BBC’s operating licence which would ensure greater transparency in audience dealings, and the introduction of a Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, but warned that you needed to be “careful that it was ‘too little, too late’, and that we take the opportunity for future-proofing. Ultimately, it’s the flexibility to look at the future that will enable us to safeguard the reach and impact of the BBC’s public service mission for the future. Against a tough financial backdrop, we’re having to make some really tough decisions about how e manage these transitions and what we prioritise.”
In closing remarks, Sumner welcomed the work the government had done so far, but suggested “we need a bit of pace injected, not just for the groups and media here, but more generally and that’s something for government and parliamentarians to really think about.”
Alistair Law, Director of Policy, Sky, in a panel on ‘Priorities for policy – remits, content and quotas, funding, innovation, audio and distribution, and content gateways and prominence’ suggested that although broadcasters such as Sky did not have public broadcast service licences, the contribution made by the likes of Sky and others shouldn’t be undermined and should serve as the starting point for the next set of challenges. “The Media Bill is very public service-focused and should deliver on the elements we’ve been debating for a number of years,” he said, noting that it was silent on Intellectual Property, which he described as “the lifeblood of the creative industries,” suggesting that as technological challenges keep emerging, and as developments keep up, “we need regulation to be in place to ensure that when Intellectual Property is created, and when programmes are made with fantastic value, the creators of those programmes have the ability to be able to receive the commercial value in full on that basis.”
“We’ve had extraordinary changes since the 2003 Communications Act,” admitted Magnus Brooke, Group Director of Strategy, Policy and Regulation, ITV, with Emily Davidson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Channel 4, adding that there were key aspects of broadcasting landscape that required “urgent” reform. “As a channel, we welcome the government’s prioritising [of] the Media Bill to ensure the landscape is fit for the digital era. We believe it should now be introduced into parliament at the earliest opportunity. It’s been a long time coming.”
Echoing Sumner’s comments on prominence, she noted that it was the most necessary provision for PSBs in the Bill. “The regime hasn’t been updated for over 20 years,” she observed. “Technology and viewing habits have changed massively during that time. Prominence is the main regulatory benefit that the PSBs receive in return for delivering public service content, quota fulfilment, and universal service obligations. The lack of up-to-date prominence rule means that PSB acts are risking fading away from public view. The legislation needs to be workable and effective,” she asserted.
“This Bill, when it becomes an Act, is going to be there for a long time, like the 2003 one,” suggested Colin Browne, Chairman, Voice of the Listener & Viewer, “so it’s really important to get it right now.”
In a closing keynote address on ‘The future direction for public service media’, Victoria MacCallum, Deputy Director, Television Policy, DCMS, briefed delegates on the Bill’s aims. She acknowledged that it had been a long time since Government had updated broadcast legislation and that the sector had changed “almost beyond recognition”.
“The Bill will provide a much-needed update to this decades-old legislation,” she stated. “It will turbocharge the growth potential of our public service broadcasters,” adding that it had been “a very long time in development. This is not something that we have come to lightly”.
In terms of prominence, she suggested proposed changes would offer “a vital boost to the stability of public service broadcasting in the UK,” adding that this reflected the Government’s broad support of the future sustainability of PSBs in the streaming age. “We’re hopeful that these broad policy measures will give the PSBs the tools they need to better face the challenges posed by this rapid technological change.”
She described the proposed measures as “complex” which the DCMS wanted to get right. “We are having a period of technical engagement at official level with a range of stakeholders to ensure we have got this right. She noted that the DCMS Select Committee had welcomed publication of the draft Bill and had announce a call for evidence. “We very much look forward to engaging with the Committee as the enquiry develops over the next period of time. We will continue to work on the Bill with the same enthusiasm when we are finally able to introduce it to Parliament which is something we are very much committed to doing when parliamentary time allows,” she concluded.