Report of Policy Network Meeting on the media policy agenda post election, London, 16 April 2010

Report by Sonia Livingstone 

Speaker: Maggie Brown

Chair: Steve Barnett

Date and location: 16 April 2010, City University, meeting lasted 1.5 hours.

Present (despite various apologies largely due to closure ofairports):

  1. Maggie Brown – MB
  2. Steve Barnett – SB
  3. Maria Michalis – MM
  4. Sylvia Harvey – SH
  5. Des Freedman – DF
  6. Bruce Hanlin – BH
  7. Jonathon Hardy – JH
  8. Andrea Esser – AE
  9. Sonia Livingstone – SL

Maggie Brown, now freelance writer for The Guardian, writing on media policy and business for 30+ years. Author of a book on the history of Channel Four – partly because no academic had then taken it on (!); received fair access to C4 actors and archives. More recently, writing about the state of freelance journalism – concerned that students are graduating without realising how exploitative the job market is.

Agenda for the meeting – the next government’s likely policy agenda and what the role of academics should be.

MB initial statement: 

  • Of course depends on whether the government is Conservative or hung parliament. Not very worried either way.
  • To be sure, the BBC will be scrutinised but she is positive that it will continue; ‘the BBC is deeply entwined in British life’ and has many supporters. She is confident but not complacent. No real sign either that the public is deserting the BBC.
  • Conservatives do say: reduced Ofcom, changes for BBC, reduced public sector, return policy making to DCMS.
  • Questions: regulatory tussle between Ofcom and the Competition Commission.
  • Admires BSkyB – so what will happen to its premium channels (re availability on other platforms).
  • Newspapers – print vs online – big changes must come; is in favour of payment for online newspapers. Example of The Times is interesting – pay subscription with inbuilt pay wall.

SB asks: what of future for BBC regulation, especially asthe Trust is not so poor as often claimed.

MB: we need an intelligent debate on this. BBC regulationhas been flawed but Ofcom statements re regulating content/BBC not strongeither. Against dividing up PSB content around other organisations. Confidentthat BBC can defend itself against government.

Suggests BBC Trust should do less and focus more. There was a big public debate in setting up the Trust, and one should therefore keep it (and improve it, not abandon it). There are other things to worry about than the BBC. Sure that BBC regulation will not be given to Ofcom.

BBC made a crucial strategic error in taking on the digital switchover money as it opened the door to arguments over licence fee money. BBC should hand the money back to the licence fee payers. It could also cope with acut in its licence fee and still be the same.

Independently funded news consortium proposal – failed at the last moment (though could be revived if a Labour government) and good that it did. ITN had been kept out of the proposals. The government’s plan had really been to divert money from BBC television (licence fee money) to newspapers. Still, the genie is out of the bottle and it is now patently clear that regional news is in trouble and that there are some good ideas around on how to improve matters.

SH: missing half billion pounds in terrestrial broadcasters (money no longer available); MB says, Ofcom should insist on non-terrestrial channels investing in original UK content, as these channels have plenty of money. Why does Ofcom not insist on such investment, especially from Sky?

SH: people don’t know which are the most watched channels –but since they are still the PSB channels, this should be recognised as asuccess story.

MB on pay walls and subscription for news: a successful business can be built from subscribers even with small audience share; so many will be excluded but it can be successful as a marketing device. ‘Everybody will follow their own furrow’ – so, the BSkyB model can be extended to the press.

JH: what about the issue of digital exclusion? MB notworried, provided BBC remains free and used – everyone can get their news via BBC, and if people choose to subscribe on top, that’s their choice (provided impartiality rules for content continue).

DF: BBC Strategy Review: if you wished to argue against cuts on, say, 6 Music and Asian network, how would you argue? MB not bothered about Asian network; perhaps 6 Music will be saved by what has been a successful campaign – was all a successful diversionary tactic by the BBC, to show how popular its services are. MB – the strategy review is a strange document,uncosted, written for the election, not very disciplined.

MB Digital Britain: range of broadband services now being launched, but as more gets put on digital platform, other things must be closed down; this would be a good principle for the BBC – as it does more, it should close more down.

MB: Rise of foreign language satellite channels means thateven a diversifying cultural population doesn’t need the BBC to provide foreveryone differently.

SB: isn’t there an argument for the BBC to refocus on a very few television and radio channels? MB: yes, and especially BBC3 & 4 make nosense at all, especially for starting at 7pm (when digital channels are often watched in the day)

JH: makes an argument for academic research on cultural research (re quality, range, content, diversity) – to complement Ofcom’s market research and government social research. MB: agrees – Ofcom, runs scared of the cultural/content side of broadcasting (though confident on consumer/market research).

Discussion of comparison with USA re cross media ownership.

MB: print journalism has the ideas, often ripped off by television journalists; so why not embed the one in the other? So, television journalism significantly dependent on print journalism (witness any TV station newsroom); the blogosphere has extended print journalism online (more than TV journalism).

Will young people desert the BBC? Young adults are, perhaps,but they all grew up on CBBC – is this a life stage matter (i.e. they will return to the BBC when they have children) or is it a historical change (and so a problem, that BBC will over time lose audiences)?

Importance of CBBC discussed – for children, no adverts, rangeof genres, high quality, UK originated, educational at times. Discussion of the difficulty of establishing the value of adult/generalist programming. Linked to problematic lack of research on matters of cultural quality – which would help in countering Ofcom’s relative silence on cultural quality. Should/could bemore academic research on this.

Ofcom report on the future of children’s television – an atypical assertion by Ofcom of the importance of PSB for children, including assertion of ‘fluffy’ qualities (positive values).

Reality of reduced regional news, threat to newspapers’ future, and similar has been a cold shock for policy makers/industry – a realisation that valued institutions may really disappear forever in a climate dominated by market forces.

 

Next meeting

Organising the next meeting at Ofcom – Sylvia Harvey will take plans forward.

Is the meeting – about varieties of research (of whichOfcom’s approach is only one), or about the agenda (cultural, critical) to which academic research can make a contribution? Searching for a date in mid September. The meeting thanked Sylvia for her actions. 

Posted by Einar Thorsen