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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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