Regulating the media

The government just can't stop getting involved

I’ve just finished a few books that look at the challenges broadcasters have faced - The Remarkable Tale of Radio 1 by Robert Sellers and Maggie Brown’s Channel 4: A History: from Big Brother to The Great British Bake Off (the sequel to the equally excellent A Licence to be Different - The Story of Channel 4 which covers the channel’s early years).

In retrospect the problems Radio 1 and Channel 4 faced were pretty prosaic - from being the challenger (to the pirates and BBC/ITV respectively) to being the challenged (the rise of commercial radio and the growth of multi-platform television). They were both trying to maintain as much of the status quo as possible - broadly audience share and revenue (for C4) - without having to change too much.

The government, though, loomed large across much of these network’s decision making. With the changing views of the changing politicians being the winds that buffeted them in different directions. Whilst there was some public good that came from this huffing and puffing it was often a lucky benefit, rather than at the core of government thinking.

Radio 1’s story is well documented. The re-positioning from the dinosaur DJs of the 80s to the Bannister-led youth operation. Much driven by the BBC’s worry that the station would be abolished or privatised if it didn’t re-engage with a youth audience. For Channel 4 it was being populist enough to generate the ratings that paid for it to continue to deliver its remit of challenging, different television. Big Brother and Bake Off ensuring they could afford to do Dispatches and Channel 4 News.

In both the Channel 4 books the regular desire for governments to look at privatising the channel is covered in depth. Successive investigations return to the same truth. C4 costs the public nothing, but by not being permitted to make programmes (or own the rights to them) it in-effect redistributes its billion pounds of advertising revenue each year to 400-odd companies, employing 20,000 people in the the independent TV sector. At the same time its remit to provide challenging programming from unheard voices keeps it different from other channels and provides public value. It’s a very clever model - no public cost (except its use of government spectrum - the value of which is declining as IP consumption increases) and plenty of public value (even if it has to co-exist between episodes of Countdown and How I Met Your Mother).

Any privatisation would re-direct a decent chunk of its ad money to shareholders and any new owner would want its remit revised so it could make more margin (probably by making its own programmes rather than use independent companies). It may generate a one-off £500m to £1bn for the treasury - but at what public cost?

The government pretends that it’s about ensuring its future in an age of Netflix, but with little agreement from anyone actually in the TV industry, it seems more likely that they’re merely interested in curtailing a channel that has no problem calling the Prime Minster a liar and replacing him with a melting block of ice in a debate.

It seems inconceivable that the government doesn’t have anything better to do at the moment than revisit privatisation, that it itself previously ruled out as recently as 2017.

Most governments have an unhealthy obsession with the media. Maybe Jay Leno’s quote that “politics is just show business for ugly people” rings too true. The current government though combine both the constant grumpiness of the party in power (that afflicts both Labour and Conservatives alike) with a desire (and glee) to engage in the culture wars.

Oliver Dowden, the Culture secretary, likes writing in The Telegraph. It’s perhaps not difficult to decode his thinking when he writes of GB News that “We need outlets and commentators who cover the range of the political spectrum” whilst on the BBC of course he says: “It’s time to ask big questions about the future of the BBC”. Both of these he writes for a paper where his comments are behind a paywall.

His colleague Priti Patel can combine accusing the England team of “gesture politics” for taking the knee whilst tweeting at the end of a winning streak:

Much of this stems from the current government’s desire to weaken public broadcasters that it sees as the enemy. The challenges to their regulation sits alongside their refusal to put up ministers to appear on Channel 4 News and the Today Programme (pre-pandemic). Of course when the pandemic struck they suddenly realised that all the public channels were essential to get their health messages across.

Post-pandemic that value seems to be forgotten and they’re back to trying to force partisan influence onto the regulatory boards - ex-government Communications Director Robbie Gibb to the BBC, and multiple attempts to sit Paul Dacre as the Chair of Ofcom. It’s hard to believe that either have the maintenance of public service broadcasting at their heart.

Commercial radio’s done pretty well out of the government as it’s generally gone along with its evidence that changing consumer behaviour necessitates a reduction in regulation. LBC and Talk Radio are also more aligned with conservative thinking than their TV counterparts - and definitely have no trouble attracting conservative politicians.

This alignment will suit the sector well as the digital radio review leaves aside knotty topics like FM switchover in favour of arguments of prominence on UK radio on audio platforms provided by US companies into Britain.

A word of warning though, as we know these political winds do change and sitting on regulated spectrum means views can alter. Radio groups (including the BBC) could be stung at some point for fees to use broadcast spectrum (spectrum pricing) and the question on how local news is delivered by radio in the future probably still has to be resolved too. Don’t forget all politicians are local ones.

Historically those not taking public money or using public spectrum are free from government interference. So commercial radio may see the growth of their IP output as a get out of regulation free card. However, with announcements about regulating Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video, it shows that very little can get in the way of ministers desires to fiddle with what comes out of your TV or speaker.

AOB

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I’ve also been taking to Zoom to be interviewer or interviewee over the past couple of weeks: