EMPOWERING THE VIEWER 2
mediawatch-uk response to the Government's White Paper on the Future of
This Association welcomes the Government's willingness to receive comments on the proposals set out in the White Paper. We recognise that the development of digital technology and its rapid application into the communications media presents new problems of regulation which must have a legal framework and a regulatory structure that will have at its core the interests of the viewer and listener.
We note at the outset that the Government, in its Consultation 'Regulating Communications: approaching convergence in the Information Age', stated: (5.5(a))
"The regulatory process starts with Government. Regulators must have a clear legislative framework within which to operate. With greater clarity of duties and objectives comes improved accountability for their delivery - to Parliament, to ministers and to consumer".
and in (5.5(c))
"The whole process requires transparency. All parties with an interest must have an opportunity to participate effectively in the decision making process. Regulators' procedures should be set out clearly, the key decisions must be explained and their rationale properly understood".
OBJECTIVES AND PRINCIPLES
The objective of any system of content regulation should surely be to set standards and to provide a proper mechanism by which they are maintained or improved. The system should provide adequate safeguards and appropriate sanctions against those who breach the standards.
As with any system of regulation it must be based on principles that are clearly defined and it should be obvious to the practitioner and to the consumer what these principles are. The priority task for OFCOM is to establish principles.
We note that OFCOM is to be given adequate powers to establish rules and to impose sanctions. There is no indication of what these rules might be or in what circumstances sanctions might be imposed.
Whilst we accept that there are merits in the current system there is no description of what the "more coherent system of objectives and principles" might be.
The requirement to balance "freedom of speech against the need to protect against potentially harmful material" needs to be better explained especially with regard to how the right balance is to be achieved taking into account the public interest. This is especially important because the White Paper observes that "audience expectations differ". Expectations are said to be related to "sophisticated assumptions derived from programme description, time of day and week and context".
Experience gained by the Association shows that this line of reasoning can be and is used to justify anything no matter how offensive or objectionable it may be. Moreover, we believe that it conflicts with the Government's desire "to combine a lighter touch in many aspects with tough protection of the genuine public interest in others".
At the same time OFCOM will have the task of introducing a three tier system of regulation but it will have to help people make informed choices about what they and their children see and hear.
From this it is certainly not clear how OFCOM will achieve the maintenance of high quality content, a wide range of programming and a plurality of public expression whilst at the same time protecting the interests of citizens. By promoting media literacy as way of requiring people to take on greater responsibility for their own and their children's viewing and Internet use OFCOM places the onus for content on the consumer rather than on the provider. And the provision of "clear, consistent and user friendly information" reinforces the trend in focusing away from the provider.
This Association believes that in the present 24-hour global broadcasting environment the 'watershed' is outmoded as an effective means of protecting young people from unsuitable material. The widespread use of video recorders enabling easy time shifting of programmes has rendered the 'watershed' meaningless.
The importance attached to rating systems by the Government is also misplaced because these are also at variance with the desire to introduce "tough protection" against "potentially offensive or harmful material". Rating schemes safeguard the broadcasters from justifiable criticism of the excesses they transmit. Relying on "accepted community standards", which are plainly subject to considerable variation, may inevitably lead to a rapid degeneration of standards as OFCOM could adopt the 'lowest common denominator' as its guide.
Past experience demonstrates that it is futile to attempt to regulate content using schemes that are poorly defined, ambiguous and interpreted only by regulators. Further evidence of failure in the present system is provided by the latest Briefing Update (No7) issued by the Broadcasting Standards Commission 29/1/2001. This shows that "half the respondents in a survey conducted in 1999 spontaneously said they had a concern about television output" and that "there was an increase in 1999 in the absolute numbers of incidents of depicted violence, swearing and offensive language, while the numbers of scenes of sexual activity were among the highest recorded".
In order to overcome public concern OFCOM, in its efforts to regulate content, must firstly establish public confidence. It should require that all broadcasters do nothing to undermine human dignity or civilised values, that they show respect for the audience and that they present the best possible information, education and entertainment. For their part broadcasters must present far- sighted plans demonstrating a real passion for excellence which will fulfil the above objectives.
The statutory requirement that programmes should not offend good taste or decency or offend public feeling should be maintained but be better defined. A new offence of bringing broadcasting into disrepute should be introduced.
The essential problem, that we hope the White Paper will resolve once and for all is, that up to now there has been no definitive statement of what constitutes unacceptable programme material.
The task of regulating content will clearly require such a statement and we recommend as a start consideration of the BBFC Classification Guide. Anything regarded by the Board as suitable for 18 or R18 classification should be automatically excluded from broadcast content.
We note with concern that the White Paper makes no reference to objective standards but instead suggests that "community standards" will be a primary determining factor in future. We would point out that this creates real difficulties because public consensus has become fragmented as a result of long term exposure to conflicting ideologies and lifestyles popularised in the media. The White Paper is not clear at all on how OFCOM will make judgements about content and the basis upon which it will adjudicate on complaints from the public.
This Association believes that the "tiered" approach to content regulation will undermine established standards and will add to, rather than dispel, public confusion.
A consequence of the multi-channel television environment is that audiences have fragmented and in the unedifying scramble for ratings and audience share standards of taste and decency have collapsed. So bad had the situation become that The Rt Hon Chris Smith MP, Culture Secretary, issued an unprecedented rebuke against Channel 5 TV in the House of Commons, 12/6/2000.
We note that the White paper takes into account the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and we would expect OFCOM to place due emphasis on the requirements to protect health and morals which ought to take priority over all other considerations.
AUTHENTIC PUBLIC OPINION
OFCOM must do far more to elicit comment from the general public about programmes. This Association welcomes the formal establishment of the Viewers Panel but this must be broadly based if it is to reflect authentic public opinion. The present system of BBC and ITC local and regional advisory councils provides a useful model but these have tended to conduct business behind the scenes and few outside the broadcasting industry know anything about them. OFCOM must ensure that the Viewers Panel has a high public profile with a single address and telephone number regularly publicised on television and radio.
Moreover, the work of OFCOM and the Viewers Panel should be the subject of regular promotional television programmes which could perhaps take the form of an amalgamation of 'Watchdog', 'Right to Reply', 'Points of View' and 'Feedback'. OFCOM must ensure that the broadcasters do far more to canvas public opinion on programme content. This should be a continuous process for which additional resources should be made available.
This Association believes that the single most important innovation in viewer and listener relations has been the introduction by the BBC of the national rate, 24-hour telephone service for receiving comments about programmes from the public. OFCOM should establish a well-publicised equivalent service for the services over which it has jurisdiction. We suggest that a leaflet be enclosed with the TV licence renewal notice giving details of how the public can contact OFCOM and/or the Viewers Panel.
We acknowledge that the ITC produces and publishes an annual 'Factfile' which is a comprehensive guide to commercial television services in the UK. OFCOM must produce a similar booklet and do much more to promote it than the ITC has ever done.
This Association believes that the broadcasting authorities have given insufficient weight to unsolicited complaints or comments from the public about programmes. Generally these are a result of genuine offence being caused by programme content. The response received is almost always a discouragement and the writer is made to feel foolish and a nuisance. Indeed a recent article in a national Sunday newspaper referred to such people as "busybodies". OFCOM must address this serious deficiency in public relations, which would not be tolerated in any other industry.
This Association believes that the Viewers Panel should be expected to conduct an analysis of complaints and that BBC programmes should be included in this process. OFCOM must be required by Parliament to devise a definitive Programme Code that would enable greater consistency and less equivocation in its adjudication's. The process of making findings should be speeded up taking weeks rather than months. The findings should be published each month and where complaints are upheld this ought to disqualify programmes from any future repeat.
OFCOM'S performance should be regularly reviewed by the Secretary of State and/or through the Select Committee system in Parliament.
A SINGLE CODE
This Association can see no good reason why there should not be a single comprehensive Programme Code that applies to all television services. To accompany such a framework there should be a regime of sanctions leading ultimately to a withdrawal of the Licence. Sanctions should be extended to include breaches of good taste and decency.
At present there is no mechanism through which an aggrieved viewer can gain relief for perceived breaches of taste and decency regulations through the judicial system. Whilst it is true that the Obscene Publications Act 1959 can be invoked no prosecution is possible without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. That this fact is not mentioned in Annex A: 'Negative content regulation', is rather curious.
This Association recognises that real regulatory difficulties have arisen from the rapid growth of television channels. It has become impractical to monitor the entire output of all of them. One way of overcoming this problem is that OFCOM should require that every licensed TV and Radio Station has its own resident Compliance Officer who should be accountable to OFCOM. With new definitive statutory requirements on programme content and a well-defined uniform Programme Code it should be far easier for breaches in the regulations to be identified. Such breaches should not be entirely dependent upon investigations following negative public reaction to a programme. OFCOM should also have the power to preview programmes if necessary.
It is plainly not in the public interest to have a content regulator which simply complies with the demands of film and programme makers and/or with demands made by advertisers. OFCOM must ensure that the balance of power is shifted towards the viewer and listener.
This Association notes that the British Board of Film Classification has recently published new guidelines on classification of films and videos. Whilst we certainly do not agree with the latitude permitted to film and video producers the principle that a workable schedule of content can be devised is now established.
OFCOM must have, as part of its statutory remit, the task of distinguishing what is acceptable for the electronic media and what is not.
We note with considerable interest the inclusion in 'Annex A' of the provisions enabling the Secretary of State to issue Proscription Orders against foreign satellite services given that the ITC or the Radio Authority makes such a recommendation.
It is a matter of great concern that the ITC recommended in March 2000 that the Secretary of State issue a Proscription Order against the pornographic satellite Channel 'Adult X'. In September 2000 the ITC recommended that another order be issued against the 'Satisfaction Channel'.
That neither Proscription Order had been issued by 25 January 2001 by the Secretary of State completely undermines the efficacy and validity of this part of the Broadcasting Act.
Moreover, this benevolent attitude to pornographic channels contrasts with the disqualification's that currently apply to religious or Christian channels.
The White Paper acknowledges that religious content has a particular capacity to offend those with different views and opinions.
We submit that pornography, violence and obscene language also has a "particular capacity to offend" and yet continues to be tolerated and accommodated by the Government and by the regulatory authorities.
We cannot, as a society, at the same time glorify and defend works of entertainment which set the worst possible example and then condemn those who simply reflect the behaviour that is popularised and normalised on television in film and video.
So long as nothing is done to improve the general moral and ethical tone of our entertainment, serious behavioural problems, described recently as "yob culture", will persist.
We readily acknowledge that OFCOM has a huge task ahead it.