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Why we need Ofcom

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

This is what happened to Ernie. Photograph: Getty Images

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.