- Link to a series of in-depth Guardian reports on BBC/PSB, history and future
- List of other posts on this blog on PSB/BBC
- Link to a helpful Word doc which in simple, plain language sets out the BBC/PSB issues, including commercial TV and its regulators over the years
- Define several key terms
- My take on PSB/BBC issues in several sub-sections, with further links, vids (Steve Coogan/Chris Morris), pics within each:
- EARLY HISTORY + PASSIVE AUDIENCE ASSUMPTIONS
- REITHIAN VALUES: EDUCATE, ENTERTAIN, INFORM
- STRICT REGULATION OF OWNERSHIP AND CONTENT
- TROUBLES WITH NORTHERN IRELAND
- OFF WITH THEIR HEAD: DODGY DOSSIERS + DEREGULATION
- A PATTEN EMERGES: COE IS ME
- BYE BYE AUNTIE BEEB? FAREWELL PSB?
- ANOTHER FUTURE: BBC WORLDWIDE + FREEVIEW CONNECT
NB: The Guardian has recently published in-depth reports on the BBC and PSB, including on the future of both.
|Very useful! Access here.|
I've blogged several times on PSB issues; see:
- Greek PSB shutdown; comparison with Italy/Berlusconi
- OfCom 2012 complaints overview: issues of child protection and watershed featured prominently - many detailed case studies you can use in this post, + wider analysis
- Free market ideology/broadcast industry: a brief(ish) explanation of what we mean by 'free market', a key term/ideology used to argue for deregulation
- OfCom research task: many useful links/bullet points within this
- OfCom: some fundamentals. A detailed post which tells you much of what you need to know about the regulation of commercial TV, alongside some comparison with BBC regulation - and how the two overlap.
- OfCom future: can't sanction ITV/C5? A new term entered the lexicon after ITV threatened to walk away from its PSB commitments entirely, arguing they cost too much while in a digital age the PSB benefits were gone: (license) handback. This post looks at the possibility of ITV/C5 simply ceasing to follow OfCom's PSB requirements.
- Arguments against 'impartial' news/current affairs. Robert Fisk argues that the legal requirement for UK broadcast news/current affairs to be 'impartial' (similar to the 'fair and balanced' US doctrine ... though Fox News, with a blatant pro-Republican bias, faces no issues there [and OfCom granted it a license here, so long as it remains a US news station]) actually creates bias
You can also find a plain English Word doc which sums up PSB and gives a history of how this has changed with both the BBC and the commercial broadcasters (ITV etc) over the years at http://adamrobbins.edublogs.org/files/2007/06/what-is-public-service-broadcastin1.doc.
|It dates back to 2007, but Adam Robbins' guide is helpful.|
FIRST, SOME KEY TERMS:
PSB: Public Service Broadcasting. Sky, and the vast bulk of digital/cable channels are not legally considered as PSBs, it is only the BBC/ITV/C4/C5 that are PSB. These have a legal duty to reflect public needs for news and information; regional programming; and to ensure certain programme categories are included in their schedules (eg religious, children's). This reflects their privileged status: in the analogue era when you bought a TV these channels were automatically accessible, while in the digital era they are all free through Freeview and are still required to be listed at the top of EPGs (Electronic Programme Guide).
SPECTRUM SCARCITY + DIGITAL SWITCHOVER: PSB is an historic concept, dating back to a time when we had 'spectrum scarcity': as TV/radio was 'broadcast' through airwaves, there was only room for a small number of stations (which slowly grew as technology improved). Airwaves = spectrum, limit = scarcity. When the 1980s saw Sky and Virgin emerge as satellite/cable alternatives, this concept began to be undermined, reflected in the gradual changes to the regulators (ITC was explicitly intended to be 'light touch', and OfCom 'deregulatory') and their PSB policies. We've now had 'digital switchover', so the advantage of being built in to analogue (pre-digital) TV sets has gone, posing questions about PSB.
FREE MARKET, PEACOCK REPORT 1985: PSB requirements go against free market ideology; they are a recognition that without government interference/regulation, we would end up with a downmarket TV service and limited news/current affairs in particular. Such programming brings low audiences, struggles to attract advertisers, and so would be dumped by stations left entirely free to pursue profit. Thatcher appointed Lord Peacock to report on the future of TV funding, expecting this free marketeer to recommend privatising the BBC. He didn't! While he stated that the withdrawal of taxation, and thus any remaining state 'interference' in the press market, had led to a truly 'free press' back in 1851, he argued that TV was different, and too culturally and politically important to permit what a free market would encourage: a "race to the bottom". Crucially, Thatcher's ally Murdoch managed to have his Sky operations designated non-PSB, with the spurious line that they were a European (Luxembourg!!!) broadcaster, and so was free from any requirements for regular news bulletins, programme types etc.
TOP-SLICING: The license fee used to be for the BBC only, but over recent years the BBC has had to fund some wider ventures, such as digital switchover, from the license fee, and there have been frequent campaigns to force the Beeb to share the license fee with other PSBs, expecially C4 (or even fund several new digital PSBs). This idea is popular with C4 itself, but also the BBC's many enemies in the press (basically the 83% of the press which are right-wing), who would welcome the BBC being made a much smaller organisation. The Murdochs love this idea, and have openly complained that the BBC should be banned from competing in some sectors of the media market.
PSB: BACKGROUND + POSSIBLE FUTURE
EARLY HISTORY + PASSIVE AUDIENCE ASSUMPTIONS:
Most media industries have started out with strong government intervention, not in an anything goes free-market (the web is an arguable exception). While the press eventually enjoyed apparent freedom from state regulation, with the abolition of licensing in 1694 then of taxes (stamp duty) by 1851, the broadcast industries were considered just too powerful to be allowed to operate without strict government rules of conduct and content guidelines.
This reflected theories around audience effects such as Adorno's hypodermic syringe model, which argued that the values/messages contained within a text would have a strong influence over their audience. Many such theorists had experienced (and fled from) Nazi Germany, with its highly effective use of radio and film propaganda, and so tended to view broadcast media as a potential threat to democracy if not strictly controlled.
Today this viewpoint would be criticised for assuming the audience is 'passive' and weak; Media academics tend to use more 'active' audience models, such as McQuail's 'uses and gratifications' model (the audience picks media to consume for their own ends), or Hall's levels of reading (how a text is 'read' is dependent on the person/audience consuming it, not necessarily the 'meaning' [preferred reading] encoded within it).
Nonetheless, just as with film censorship, that simplistic idea remains influential.
|A reminder! Access here.|
You could argue that when The Sun bragged on its front page after the 1992 general election, It Was the Sun Wot Won It (the Tories surprisingly defeated Labour) they were also reflecting a passive view of audiences.
BBC Radio and, later, TV would be governed by the seemingly strict legal requirement of impartiality. The limits to this were seen very early: the BBC was openly biased in its reporting of the 1926 General Strike, demonstrating (as it did again during WW2) that it sees supporting political stability as more important than the principle of impartiality. Given this, it is perhaps understandable why Thatcher would be so furious in the 80s when the Beeb refused to censor some reports on British Army murder in Northern Ireland.
We might also think of film censorship or regulation as being neutral, but, as Julian Petley details in his book 'Censorship', right up to the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 any critical representation of Germany or the Nazis was effectively banned. It might seem shocking today, but there were also pro-Nazi newspapers, the Daily Mail for instance urging its readers to support British Nazi Oswald Mosley. John Grierson would be employed by the British government to oversee the creation of propaganda films throughout WW2, reversing the earlier pro-Nazi stance the BBFC had enforced.
The panic caused by the 1930s radio broadcast of HG Wells' fictional sci-fi drama on an alien invasion, War of the Worlds, is still cited today as an example of the power of broadcast media. However ... this BBC report highlights that this is a myth, and actually an example of a moral panic whipped by the (USA) press, keen to put the boot in to their new news competitor.
REITHIAN VALUES: EDUCATE, ENTERTAIN, INFORM
Lord Reith was the BBC's first Director General (the most senior position within the BBC, then and now). Son of a church minister, like many media regulators since, he had a background in government having worked in a government ministry.
|BBC's refusal to join calls for aid to Gaza sparked claims of pro-Israel bias. See book.|
There has been much debate ever since about the proper level of balance between these three for functioning PSB.
Reith himself was typical of the times in believing that the working-/middle-classes should be exposed to artforms and serious programming that would improve their cultural tastes; a belief in the binary of 'high culture' and 'popular culture'. I doubt he would approve of today's ITV, with its TOWIE and other such 'reality TV' fare - or be impressed with the dumbing down of C4, with its hits such as Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street.
READ MORE: Wiki on Reithianism; BBC history of Reith; short BBC profile of Reith.
STRICT REGULATION OF OWNERSHIP AND CONTENT
The BBC was a state monopoly of broadcasting. It was felt that allowing many small companies to compete would prevent radio and TV from developing as a national service, given the huge investment needed to set up a broadcasting network, let alone ensuring that there was agreement over the technical specifications of the signal and the TV/radio sets that received it. It was also seen as too sensitive to leave broadcast to private companies, as the potential for political and cultural influence was seen as huge.
|Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie + tabloidisation|
When commercial TV was introduced from 1955, it was under very strict conditions. The government retained control of the broadcasting network and equipment, and the regional ITV companies operated under license. The ITA, the original commercial TV regulator (now OfCom, following the IBA and ITC), carefully scrutinised every detail of each ITV company's output, to the point of forcing changes to daily programme schedules if they weren't happy with the level of attention given to a certain programme category.
Ownership was also very tightly regulated: the regional companies had to be separate and independent from each other; merging was effectively illegal.
The Conservative Party, as free marketeers, have historically been uncomfortable with the BBC, and when Mrs Thatcher tasked Lord Peacock with reporting on its funding in 1985, she assumed he would suggest privatisation; she was wrong. He argued that a free market in TV would only lead to a "race to the bottom", what has since been termed as dumbing down or tabloidisation. Its hard to disagree when we get ToWIE and the likes, but also saw early digital TV deliver such important shows such as Topless Darts on Ice, and a man in a bunny costume responding to TV news bulletins with a thumb up/down (the 'news bunny'), both examples of L!ve TV (the book on its history is a fascinating/horrifying read!).
TROUBLES WITH NORTHERN IRELAND
When the so-called 'Troubles' (a propaganda term that, as it became 'common sense' and above questioning, achieved hegemony) began in Northern Ireland in 1968, regulation of ownership and content remained very strict and restrictive.
Mrs Thatcher went rather beserk when first the BBC then ITV refused to ban documentaries she considered treasonous. The BBC's Real Lives (1985) included an interview with a Republican; Thatcher considered this as going directly against her recent call to deny 'terrorists' (another subjective term) the "oxygen of publicity", and was stunned when the BBC refused to ban the programme (BBC staff went on strike in protest when it seemed the BBC was going to give in and ban it).
You can read more at bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/resources/bbcandgov/real_lives.shtml, part of a wider history of the BBC which is very useful for this topic.
When ITV's regulator, the IBA, likewise refused her demand that they ban Death on the Rock, a 1988 doc which exposed the British Army's illegal "shoot-to-kill" policy, the government response was swift and brutal, and demonstrated the basic limits of the independence of statutory media regulators (a very good argument in favour of press self-regulation, for all its many faults). The 1988 Broadcasting Act banned 'representatives of terrorism' from speaking on UK TV/radio. The industry cleverly, cheekily got round this by employing actors to voice any such interviews, making the law an ass and leading John Major to scrap the law in 1994.
The IBA was scrapped in 1991 and replaced with the ITC. The ITV regional company that had produced DoTR was the only one that lost its license in the new auction system. Few doubted this was revenge. The ITC was set up to be a 'light touch' regulator, and eventually started loosening the restrictions on ITV companies merging, plus a gradual reduction of the PSB requirements on programming.
Thatcher would also exact revenge on the BBC by seeing the free market ideologue John Birt appointed as deputy then actual Director General, another example of the limits of the supposed independence of statutory regulators.
Here's how Chris Morris (Four Lions, The Day Today, Brass Eye, etc) portrayed the Broadcasting Ban, with Steve Coogan:
OFF WITH THEIR HEAD: DODGY DOSSIERS + DEREGULATION
Thatcher/the Tories weren't the only ones who showed a willingness to simply scrap a regulator they didn't much like and reset the terms they operated under. Under Tony Blair, sufficiently right-wing to get the support of the Murdoch press from 1995 (after he flew out for a private meeting in Australia, not to mention the so-called "Murdoch Clause" of the 2003 Communications Act that set up OfCom), Labour, angry at the ITC's refusal to ban programmes such as Brass Eye (subject of a standard Mail moral panic), replaced it.
OfCom would be legally required to deregulate. Part of the guidelines set down by the government in the 2003 Communications Act was removing the legal ban on merging ITV companies - and it didn't take long before one ITV company took over the rest, only UTV remaining independent. Granada 'merged' with Carlton, but as 68% owner of the new single ITV company, the maker of Corrie had effectively bought out the rest. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both spoke of the need for Britain to have a commercial TV giant to take on the US giants.
The once long list of PSB requirements that ITV (and C4, C5) had to follow to keep their privileged PSB licenses began to shrink sharply: the requirements for children's, religious and regional programming, for instance, were all radically cut, and ITV successfully argued for the right to move News at Ten on some days so that they could profit from uninterrupted screenings of movies and live football. For many, that is the ultimate symbol of the decline of Reithian values and the triumph of 'entertain' (ie, profit) above all else.
The BBC wouldn't escape the upheaval either. The Director General Greg Dyke, plus the Chair of the Board of Governors both refused to accept Labour government condemnation of a BBC report that Blair's infamous Iraq dossier was knowingly false and misleading. In the aftermath of the row, the source of a leak indicating the (potentially criminal) extent to which it was known the claims in this were false committed suicide. The reporting on the death of Dr David Kelly (there were some initial doubts about the 'suicide') became another source of tension between the BBC and government.
A government report now seen as highly unreliable, the Hutton Report, condemned the BBC and both the senior leaders of the Beeb resigned. The Board of Governors would be replaced with the BBC Trust, and the BBC was widely seen as much less willing to criticise government policy or action - raising questions over its fourth estate function in our democracy, and the 'inform' strand of the Reithian values.
READ MORE: Peter Preston argues BBC/Hutton showed dangers of statutory regulation; Charlotte Higgins reviews the 16 BBC Director Generals, argues they all reflected the influence of politics.
A PATTEN EMERGES: COE IS ME
We see this time and again with the supposedly independent regulators, whether statutory or self-regulatory: their heads/chief executives are appointed through a process which involves 'advice' from government. By chance, that often seems to involve men (and it is usually men still, though the PCC's Lady Buscombe was a partial exception) from the same party as the government getting selected. Greg Dyke was a major Labour donor when appointed as BBC Director General, while OfCom's head Ed Richards had been Blair's 'Spad' (special advisor) on media. Several Tory ministers from the Thatcher era have become senior regulators: Lord Patten (BBC Chair), Lords Wakeham and Hunt (PCC).
And now? After Labour's Tessa Jowell demanded an end to political appointments, Lord Coe, a former Tory MP, looks set to become the new BBC Chair.
READ MORE: Critic of appointing Coe; Coe idea defended;
BYE BYE AUNTIE BEEB? FAREWELL PSB?
Does an idea dating back to 1922 belong in a digitised era?
Shouldn't we do what most of Europe did years ago and privatise the state broadcaster? Armando Ianucci argues it should become like HBO and be subscription-funded. I'd say that is almost certain to happen, possibly quite soon after the 2015 genera; election. We have just seen a change in the law so that non-payment of the license fee is not a criminal offence; the TV license will become more and more difficult to defend and to collect.
Plus there's the growing level of BBC crisis (gleefully reported by the press):
- Savillegate, and Sachsgate before it
- overpayments to senior executives when they leave
- salary levels of 'talent' and executives
- wasting £100m on a scrapped digitisation programme
- the senior BBC figures (Paxman, Dimbleby etc) who attack the BBC in the press
- accusations of edging out older female presenters for younger women
Lord Reith was operating at a time when a single channel had an absolute monopoly; today we're seeing new niche local TV licenses being issued. Until 1984 we had only three national stations (C4 was launched, and Sky/Virgin emerged around this time too), so their influence was clearly strong. Today we have a choice of many different 24 hour rolling news stations, websites from across the world, bloggers (what Gauntlett labels 'citizen journalists'), and much more. Timeshifting is increasingly common, rendering even the watershed questionable. C5 is now owned by a US giant (to go with the US-owned Sky). If you depended on ITV or C5 to be informed about the world around you you'd rather struggle, unless you consider Joey Essex's lovelife more important than, say, the fate of Venezuela! C4, which continues to campaign for a share of the license fee, seems to have wandered far from its legal mandate to provide an alternative to the other mainstream broadcasters.
|BBC compares local TV to L!ve TV here.|
... So perhaps we do still need TV to be protected from a free market that would lead to our broadcast industry being as US-dominated as our film industry (especially since Thatcher scrapped the cinema quota in 1984) is? Or maybe we do want to have a news bunny helping us interpret news, or a profoundly biased tabloid-style news service like Murdoch's Fox News?
Then again, in a converged era, should we really be looking at TV in isolation, and is cross-media ownership (eg Murdoch's ownership of the Sun, Times, Sky and UK's biggest book publisher?) as important as ownership within a single industry?
READ MORE: Should BBC be funded like HBO? [Armando Iannucci]; OfCom announces 2015 PSB review, says it will leave top-slicing discussion to gov/BBC; £100m digital programme waste leaves BBC in crisis?; Guardian stories on the license fee.
As is of ten the case, no sooner had I written the above than there are fresh developments...
In brief, it is very likely that there will be change to or abolition of the license fee when the royal charter is renewed in 2016. The role of BBC Worldwide, which raises money for the BBC by selling programmes abroad (eg this Beckham in Brazil travelogue), is likely to increase - BBC America is already considered a key BBC platform, and some critics argue that British taxpayers should not be subsidising programming for non-UK audiences. Outside the UK, iPlayer subscriptions can be bought from £52.
Having warned the Tories against a politically-motivated appointment to replace Lord Patten as BBC Chair, Tessa Jowell (Deputy Labour Leader and former Culture Secretary) has chipped into the recent debate on the TV license. Armando Iannucci has gained widespread coverage by suggesting that the BBC be funded like HBO through subscriptions (just like Sky or Virgin), mostly sympathetic as his idea fits with the free market narrative or ideology offered up by most (83%) of the press, which has arguably achieved hegemonic status as the dominant discourse even within the 'impartial' broadcast media. Jowell says Labour are open to the possibility of replacing the license fee, BUT, crucially, strongly states that they remain supporters of an indepependent BBC:
Harman said: "The licence fee is a means to an end, it's not an end in itself.So, one of the two major parties is committed to sustaining an independent, state-owned BBC.
"If there's a better way to have universal ... and a measure of independence from government in terms of the finance, if there a better way of doing that, let's hear about it.
"We haven't found it in the past; we might do in the future. Let's see. It's not easy to see what would be better than the licence fee, but that doesn't mean it actually shouldn't be looked at."
Harman said other methods should be considered for paying for the BBC, saying the current licence renewal process, due to be completed by the end of 2016, was an "opportunity to re-examine" the corporation's funding model.
But she said the debate should not be at the risk of the BBC, which she said was "not to be undervalued and undermined. The BBC is for everyone.
"What we are absolutely not up for is a kind of ideological attack on the BBC because it is a public sector broadcaster. The fact that it is a large public sector broadcaster is one of its most important attributes.
"That must be protected and we are absolutely unambiguous about that. There is an opportunity to consider change but in the context of very strong support."
Freeview and a new alternative also look as if they have addressed the issue of justifying the concept of PSB in a digital age when spectrum scarcity is gone. YouView was meant to be this solution, but the BBC and ITV/C4 have taken a back seat with it, unhappy that other shareholders BT and TalkTalk have commercialised it by tying it into subscription deals; the PSBs are now committing only £1m a year each to it. In contrast, they have announced £100m investment in a new alternative, Freeview Connect, which gives access to iPlayer, 4oD and ITV Player.