Why we need Ofcom

Without regulators, British TV would go the way of America's.

I grew up watching TV in the 70’s, when the choice where I lived was BBC or Granada. We had a Monday evening family viewing ritual: Opportunity Knocks (a game show hosted by Hughie Green) and World in Action. We children were expected to watch World in Action because it was "important". I had no idea then that it was a classic current affairs show which would go on to run for nearly 40 years, or even what ‘current affairs’ meant, but some of the episodes still stick in my mind to this day. World in Action had a knack of turning quite serious "issues" into watchable telly.

It was only much later, and a World in Action producer myself that I realised what a huge commitment having a year-round team dedicated to such work actually meant: in terms of costs, resources, reputational risk, opportunity costs and so forth. It didn't cross my mind to ponder if this was the right function for a commercial Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) to fulfil. A number of the ITV franchises had regular current affairs strands; the BBC had Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches had joined the party, all broadcasting in peak. At the time it felt like we were all competing to prove we were the best guardians of the public interest. It was just the way it was.

I was at Granada when the 1990 Broadcasting Act cleared the way for the ITV franchises to be sold off to the highest bidder. For many academics and media commentators, this signalled the death knell for the serious current affairs television in the UK; in order to recoup the money spent on winning the valuable licenses, commercial PSB’s would cut back on expensive, labour intensive, often low rating programmes such as current affairs, or so the theory went. Paul Jackson, the new director of programmes at Carlton (successful bidder for the Thames franchise) said at the time that it was not television’s job to get people out of prison (referring to World in Action’s miscarriage of justice programmes). It was their job to pursue high ratings, earn revenue and sustain a business.

And so developed the notion that commercial broadcasters must be allowed to dance to a different tune, that weighing them down by obligations to expensive, low rating, revenue-draining commitments smacked of a paternalism and protectionism from another era - and limited their growth and expansion too. It is a view of television as a medium whose success can be measured by ratings, plain and simple. Audiences will gravitate to programmes they like and it’s the job of those running TV to provide them with what they want.

But perhaps surprisingly (and thankfully), it's a narrow view of a powerful medium that's been resisted for over half a century. Television's history is intertwined with an acknowledgment of its power. From its very inception, broadcast was recognised as "having potential power over the public opinion and the life of the nation". So much so, control of the medium remained within the state. Early battles to establish a commercial rival to the BBC are riven with anxieties about standards, quality, impartiality – and a real fear that services run on purely commercial grounds would feel no compulsion to carry the difficult, challenging, expensive stuff. The result was regulated commercial television – the so-called "PSB compact". In return for privileges and discounted access to spectrum, ITV companies would carry public service programmes at the heart of their schedule. This principle has remained broadly intact – a baton passed on from the very first regulator to todays’ super regulator, Ofcom.

Ofcom has the power to insist that the PSB’s together provide "a comprehensive and authoritative coverage of news and current affairs", and that such programmes be of "high quality and deal with both national and international matters". Most content quotas have long been swept away, news and current affairs are the only ones to remain.

I have no doubt that this long standing statutory framework has laid the groundwork for a healthy, well respected, world class environment in which current affairs journalism can thrive. It is no surprise to me that viewers continue to say they value current affairs. Television has wide reach, its journalism is more trusted than other sources and the broadcasting of current affairs can, we presume, contribute to an informed society.

I have no doubt that if the forthcoming Communications Bill dilutes these commitments, or listens to the new breed of "content generators" arguing (like the commercial channels before them) that statutory obligations limit their wriggle room – television and society will be a poorer place. We only have to look to the US for a view of what a fully de-regulated TV market looks like.

Independent TV producers I interviewed for my forthcoming report (pdf) are united in the view that left to their own devices, broadcasters would marginalise current affairs, commercial channels would be less likely to do it at all, and if so, would focus on the softer, less challenging, UK based stories. They describe making current affairs - especially international stories and investigations - as already a struggle.

It’s hard not to conclude that without some level of continuing intervention, current affairs programming would diminish, plurality of supply be reduced and the public interest failed.

This is what happened to Ernie. Photograph: Getty Images

Jacquie Hughes is a journalist and lecturer at Brunel University, and former television producer and commissioning editor.

Photo: Getty
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Nicholas Serota's Diary

The Arts Council England chair on tea with Lord Sainsbury, solving problems with cake, and opening up the industry.

On Saturday, I head to the Theatre Royal Stratford East to see Tommy, an extra­ordinary production of The Who’s musical that has emerged from a collaboration between the Ipswich-based New Wolsey Theatre and Ramps on the Moon, a consortium taking work with deaf and disabled performers into the mainstream. Preconceptions about what we understand by “disabled” are blown away. The cast dazzles with talent and brings to the work a bold perspective that leaves the mind fizzing with challenges. How important it is to make this kind of work central to what we do.

Sunday

A chance amid a busy transitional time to enjoy a private party at home, with a collective celebration for daughters’ and grand-daughters’ birthdays. Lots of cake-eating, which is good practice for my new job at the Arts Council, where any difficulty can be surmounted with the help of a slice of lemon drizzle or Victoria sponge.

Monday

My first full day in my new office at Arts Council England in Bloomsbury. A massive in-box to clear. Bent double over this most of the day, I manage somehow to do my back in again, thus proving that the burden of the abstract is no less weighty than that of the real. There are also emails from former museum colleagues at the Art Basel fair, where Maria Balshaw is the centre of attention.

Tuesday

A day of meetings with wonderful benefactors: including tea with Lord Sainsbury and his wife, who have done a huge amount to improve access to the arts. Their support for the Ashmolean, the Holburne in Bath and London-based galleries is well known. They have also been involved with a wholesale redesign of public areas at the Royal Opera House, which will lead to greater access and use for education and events during the day, as well as a complete makeover of the important Linbury Studio.

I finish the day by hopping on the Tube to the Tate to attend a farewell party for a long-serving member of the building projects team. We joined and left at the same time and, in between, we have built a lot together. So it was poignant.

Wednesday

I head to the national council of the Arts Council, and we sign off on the new national portfolio for 2018 to 2o22. It ends an exhaustive process that began 18 months ago.

This is where the Arts Council will spend the bulk of its funds over the next four years, some £1.6bn in total, across 831 organisations that determine the future direction of the arts sector. It has been fascinating. The Arts Council remains a custodian of standards and aesthetics, but it is also increasingly working with partners across government, local authorities, higher education and communities as a developer of social environments, giving people a voice and helping them to articulate what is culturally relevant to their lives. There are evolving expectations. People now look to the arts to increase well-being and regenerate local economies. Fortunately, despite the cuts in recent years, the Arts Council still has excellent knowledge and networks to help it deliver national policy at a local level.

There are two important headlines to the investment we agreed. First, that it delivers a substantial increase in funding outside London – roughly £170m over the four years, supporting a geographically wider and a more genuinely diverse range of organisations. We have held nothing back. The time is right to invest for lasting change. As the success of Hull as the UK City of Culture this year has shown, there is an appetite and a need for the arts. We can and will do more for people everywhere.

Second, we have done this without any overall reduction in investment in London, where we have refreshed the portfolio, bringing in from the margins some brilliant and challenging companies. That has been made possible by the selfless way that leading organisations based in London have taken a small cut so our funds can go further. They understand that everyone benefits from a more diverse arts world – not least London. The strength of this wonderful city comes from the breadth of the cultural conversation it has. It is an inspiration, even in the darkest moments.

Thursday

To a BBC board meeting, where we touch on the progress of Culture UK, the partnership that brings together the BBC, Arts Council England, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the Arts Council of Wales and Creative Scotland. There is funding for organisations to make content that can be shown on the BBC and plans so far to put theatre, opera, ballet and the spoken word into broadcasting, while the BBC’s online platform can widen public access to such events as the Manchester International Festival.

Friday

Another full day at the Arts Council, reviewing plans for the announcement of the national portfolio, discussing the nuance of particular decisions, prepping with a huge amount of detail. I’m also thinking ahead to events in July, when I’ll be talking about the international work of arts organisations at the Creative Industries Federation conference. There is a strong awareness of the “soft power” of the arts, while we often overlook the obvious – that international exchange, collaboration and experience are crucial to the standard of practice we enjoy in Britain, and that they are also a valuable and potentially huge source of income.

Again, the Arts Council has expertise in this area. It takes time and investment to acquire this knowledge. Over the next few years, we will need – as an arts sector and as a nation – to make the most of all the expertise we possess. I’m looking forward to the challenge. 

Nicholas Serota was the director of Tate between 1988 and 2017. He is now the chair of Arts Council England

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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