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11 October 2004

How Ofcom has let down viewers

The new communications regulator offers a clear analysis of the malaise of public service broadcasti

By David Cox

Have you managed to catch British Isles, BBC1’s new natural history blockbuster? If so, were you enthralled? Or not? The series is presented not by a natural historian, but by the TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh, whose manner, according to the Telegraph, is “jaunty”, “prodding” and “painfully zealous”. There are gimmicks galore and amazing facts to wow the incurious, yet the Daily Mail missed “the kind of evidence we’d expect from a more scholarly host”. British Isles is the BBC’s “public service” flagship for the autumn. Why don’t its ambitions match those of such illustrious forebears as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation or Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man?

You know all too well. As the broadcasting scene grows ever more competitive, the corporation feels it must put ratings before excellence, lest falling audience share weakens support for the licence fee. Next, we are told, Panorama‘s subject matter may have to be prompted by EastEnders storylines, because, according to a leaked memo, the veteran current affairs show is “too distant, demanding, difficult and didactic” for today’s schedules.

Yet, if the BBC is dumbing down its public service output, commercial services are actually jettisoning theirs. On ITV, the likes of World in Action and The Jewel in the Crown are distant memories; Channel 4, created to innovate and to serve minorities, resorts instead to lifestyle make-over shows and soft porn. For, as advertising revenue gets ever more thinly spread, those who rely on it must also pay more attention to the ratings.

So, there was much relief last year when the Communications Act required the new communications regulator, Ofcom, to come up with a plan “to maintain and strengthen” public service broadcasting. A great deal was expected from this glitzy new institution, staffed as it is with eager, razor-sharp whizz-kids who draw salaries as fancy as their grandiose Thames-side palace. Their report is now before us, and its analysis of the problem is every bit as profound as we might have hoped. It demonstrates conclusively that the decline of public service broadcasting is no temporary malaise, but the product of remorseless forces that will strengthen once switchover to fully digital TV begins in 2007.

So far, so impressive. When it came to proposing a corrective, however, Ofcom’s wizards’ wits appear to have deserted them. The systemic weakness they identify seems to demand a thoroughgoing restructuring of Britain’s broadcasting arrangements. Industry experts offered them suggestions for just such a restructuring, but all of these seem to have proved too much to swallow. Instead, their glossy, chart-laden, 137-page report in effect proposes that we should leave the core of the system much as it is.

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The BBC would continue to be Britain’s main public service broadcaster, licence-fee-funded until at least 2016. It would thus remain prey to the forces hollowing out its seriousness ever more ferociously. The report does say that all of the corporation’s programmes should “reflect the purposes and characteristics of public service broadcasting to some degree”. Unfortunately, “to some degree” seems to accommodate the likes of British Isles all too well, especially as Titchmarsh-isation is actively encouraged by the fatal further requirement that every public service programme has got to be “accessible”.

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Still, surely, the “to some degree” test at least puts paid to The Weakest Link and Neighbours? It depends on what you mean by “public service”. Ofcom’s accommodating definition should pose few problems for unscrupulous channel controllers. Anne Robinson deals in general knowledge, so perhaps she purveys “content that is accessible and can encourage informal learning”. Maybe the goings-on in faraway Ramsay Street “reflect the lives of other people and other communities”.

Whereas Ofcom at least pretends that the BBC would be brought to book, it shrugs its shoulders over ITV. This channel, it suggests, must simply be released from most of its public obligations. Channel 4, too, must be expected to wither slowly. So how is public service broadcasting to be strengthened? Time to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Ofcom proposes that while mainstream services may degenerate, a new outfit should be called into being to try to make up the deficit.

An entity called the “Public Service Publisher” would conjure up worthy material and try to find ways of distributing it, even though it would have no established channel at its disposal. Whether it found an audience or not, mainstream public service broadcasters would doubtless use its existence to justify further dumbing down of their own programmes.

So, the new fig leaf might actually prove counter-productive. Who would pay for it? Why, extra taxation would be levied. This in itself ought to be enough to kill the idea stone-dead. Why should politicians endorse a further hike in the licence fee (or some other impost) to fund this accretion, while the rest of the broadcasting sector continued to drain more than £3bn a year from the public purse, yet delivered ever less public benefit in return? Naturally, the broadcasting industry has applauded a proposal that would allow it to suck yet more public money into its maw. As usual, the more gullible newspapers have fallen for an eye-catching initiative. Yet, the PSP plan highlights the bankruptcy, not the imagination, of Ofcom’s vision.

What went wrong? Perhaps contemporary fashion in policy-making practice bears some of the blame. Ofcom’s executives did not simply apply their highly paid minds to the difficult puzzle before them. They knew such an approach might have been considered offensively elitist. Instead, in keeping with the spirit of the times, they chose to be more inclusive.

They decided that their conclusions must reflect the desires of both “stakeholders” (a polite word for vested interests) and the public at large. Their findings on what those desires might comprise would naturally be “evidence-based” (another trendy buzzword). So, they embarked on a gargantuan consultation. It embraced not just in-depth talks with established interests, but also a quantitative survey of 6,000 individuals, six large deliberative forums and many smaller focus groups.

The outcome was predictable. Those with a stake in the status quo do not want to see the boat rocked. The baffled public can only endorse the familiar. So, if you’re looking for the line of least resistance, what do you do? Leave what is not at all well alone, bolt on an appendage that will not work but will threaten no established players, and throw the bill at the taxpayer.

The resulting triumph of regulatory capture and demotic abasement may get Ofcom off the hook – but this is no way to formulate policy on a complex issue. Sometimes, those in a position to judge must grasp the nettle and own up to the need for radical change, even if this means a few noses will be put out of joint. Ofcom has betrayed its trust.