Regulation is dead: long live the independent TV viewer?

Polls suggest the public is ready to take a more active role in TV regulation to ensure it does its

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In my living room, I can turn on my web-enabled TV, watch an ITV drama and last week's episode on ITV Player. Then, I might watch a political podcast from a newspaper's website, and if I fancy it, round things off with a prank video from YouTube of someone pretending to drop an electric cable into a swimming pool.

If my husband wanders in with a cup of tea, all four of these pieces of content look like TV programming as I switch between them with my remote. But in reality they are regulated (or not) under three different regimes (Ofcom, ATVOD, and no content regulation for the internet). An hour of sofa surfing can produce a whole range of things that walk like TV programmes and talk like TV programmes, but are not in fact TV programmes. While some of them are subject to stringent regulations on harm, offence, protection of minors, privacy, fairness and impartiality, others are not.

And here in lies the future challenge for Ofcom and others concerned with protecting viewers. How should audiences be protected, when more and more regulated and unregulated content appears next to each other on converged TVs, looking, to the untutored eye, exactly the same?

Ipsos MORI's latest audience research for Ofcom shows that protecting minors and other vulnerable audiences from inappropriate or harmful content clearly remains the main concern for most people. Protecting other vulnerable groups from financial or emotional harm is the second most important principle. Whatever we are watching, whether delivered through the internet, on new converged TV's, or on mobile devices, people wanted the same, or more, regulation in future on these issues.

But findings also show there is a degree of pragmatism about what can be achieved in this world of ever-increasing channels and platforms. Importantly, viewers recognised that regulating content is not the same as censoring it.

The participants in our study broadly formed two somewhat contradictory attitudinal groups. A 'Protect me' group wanted regulators to take more of a traditional authoritarian role, stopping broadcasters putting out anything potentially harmful.

On the other hand an 'Inform me' group felt that empowering individuals might be the most effective way forward. They wanted viewers to understand that a YouTube and newspaper video will not been regulated in the same way as Channel 4 news or a BBC drama; and then allow the viewer to use her common sense while watching.

We are entering a new era, where our viewing is not policed by authority figures censoring at source or guiding us with a timeframe of what we can watch when. Everyone will, though, need help to make choices, in the form of more information, and technical tools to signpost the difference between regulated and unregulated content.

The youngest participants in our study, a group of very media-literate 16 year-olds, seemed the most enthusiastic and the readiest for this. This may be a natural evolution for regulation for the young but are their adult counterparts happy to see them use the information and technology at their disposal to make their own choices when it comes to some content?

However the 'Protect Me' group - older, more conservative overall - may need more help. If regulation shifts its focus, it is crucial that all kinds of vulnerable groups, who are likely to be the least digitally literate, are not left behind.

New regulation has to cover the views both type of audiences so that everyone sitting on their sofas understands what they are watching, where it comes from, and how far it has been regulated - and then we can all enjoy an evening's viewing.

Technical note: Ipsos MORI conducted seven pairs of reconvened workshops with about 20 participants in each in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, York, Birmingham and Manchester. Quotas were set to ensure that Ipsos MORI achieved a range of ages (from 18 to late 70s), gender, ethnicity, socio-economic group, and high and low users of new technology.

Sarah Castell is head of qualitative research at Ipsos MORI

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.