Response to the draft communications bill

Response to the bill

Media academics have a legitimate interest in this Bill;
firstly, as a topic of study, and secondly, as a group who
work under similar requirements of public service as do the
broadcasters. Annex B of the draft bill (‘Public service
broadcasting remits’) stresses the need for ‘high general
standards in all respects (and in particular in respect of
their content, quality and editorial integrity)’. It also
emphasises the importance of ‘meeting the needs and interests
of different audiences.’ Among the provisions outlined which
are deemed to meet these needs are ‘programmes of an educational
nature’; ‘a high standard of original programmes for children
and young people’ and concepts such as ‘fair debate’, ‘diversity
of cultural activity in the UK’ and ‘reasonable proportion
and range of programmes made outside London and the South
East’.

In the past, regulatory bodies working closely with producers
and broadcasting executives, such as the former IBA (now
ITC) and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, have not
simply functioned to inhibit ‘dynamic and competitive communications
and media markets’ to quote section 5.1 on Ofcom’s general
duties and powers. They have provided public forums, and
even more importantly, research funding, through which the
‘needs’of audiences and the ‘standards’ of public discourse,
as discussed above, as well as what is meant by ‘fairness’,
or ‘diversity’ or ‘reasonable,’ can be systematically investigated
through independent research. A number of MeCCSA members
have been commissioned to carry out research for the ITC
and for the BSC and through their reports, have helped to
represent diverse public voices, not just those of the industry,
but also those of audiences, and of ‘vulnerable’ groups among
audiences, in the formation of policy. Examples (of many)
include:

  • ‘The Public Interest, the
    Media and Privacy’, 2002
    by David Morrison and Michael Svennevig, Unversity of Leeds
  • ‘Consenting Children? The
    use of children in non-fiction television programmes’
    by Máire Messenger Davies and Nick Mosdell, Cardiff
    University
  • ‘From Callaghan to Kosovo: Changing
    Trends in British Television News 1975 – 1999’
    by Steve Barnett et al at, University of Westminister
  • ‘Men Viewing Violence’
    by the Stirling Media Research Institute , 1999 – 2001
  • Jointly funded ITC/BSC News and
    Current Affairs Inquiry
    currently being carried out by Ian Hargreaves and James
    Thomas at Cardiff University

The ITC has also provided a publicly-accessible library
of archive material, now to be taken over by the BFI, which
is likely to be less accessible. The BBC’s library has also
been broken up. As deregulation gathers pace, the disappearance
and dispersal of valuable broadcasting archives becomes a
source of real concern to scholars such as ourselves – and
also to the public whom we serve, both as researchers and
teachers.

The role of OFCOM

A primary concern is with the very narrow brief of OFCOM – which
will replace existing regulatory bodies, such as the BSC
and ITC. Both the BSC and ITC have acted as public initiators
for debate around regulatory matters and issues of quality,
standards, taste and so on. Our question is: Who will initiate
and support such public debates and inquiries in future?
Will the research and archiving functions of the existing
regulatory bodies be taken up by OFCOM, and if not, what
other steps will be taken to preserve these functions? The
membership of OFCOM (only five people) is also more limited
and less diverse than that of existing regulatory bodies.
Our concern is that it may well be industry-dominated, but
not necessarily by creative producers. The kinds of educationally
creative broadcasters found among our members, working in
colleges and universities, also have a valuable role to play
in establishing public service values. The informed public
debate which is so necessary to establish ‘standards’, ‘fairness’,
‘quality’, ‘service’ – ie: the criteria of public service
broadcasting itemised in the draft bill – needs to be a function
of the new regulatory arrangements too. Academic researchers
have traditionally had a role to play in this, and would
like to continue with this role. We see it as an essential
part of our own public accountability.

Professor Peter Golding

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