What will the draft Media Bill cost public service broadcasting?

30 May 2023

On 29 March, the Department for Culture Media and Sport took significant steps in making good the Government’s intention to update the 2003 Communications Act when it published a draft Media Bill.  

The draft covers a lot of ground but those working in British broadcasting have been looking for the Bill to: 

  • promote UK public service broadcaster (PSB) content and national radio stations; 
  • protect UK audiences and stimulate local content production; 
  • redress the perceived imbalance between the influence of global streaming platforms as compared to UK-based media services; 
  • And specifically regulate larger digital content selection platforms and smart devices regarding prominence and access to internet-delivered TV and radio services.  

Whether the draft does this was the subject of a recent panel session held as part of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer (VLV) spring conference. The discussion was chaired by Prof Steven Barnett of the University of Westminster. Discussing what’s in the draft Media Bill, whether it will be good news for the creative industries sector or citizens and, what the impact would be on public service broadcasting were Tim Suter, specialist advisor to media companies, governments and regulators on media policy and regulation (former Ofcom Board and former Head of Broadcasting Policy, DCMS), Lord Tom McNally, former leader of the Liberal Democrat party and crossbencher in House of Lords, Sophie Chalk, VLV’s policy expert and the Sandford St Martin Trust’s Executive Director: Anna McNamee. 

You can watch a video of the VLV session here

 or read the Trust’s recent submission in response to the Department of Culture Media and Sport’s pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill.

The blog below is based on Anna’s opening remarks to the VLV conference and summarises SSMT’s main concerns about what’s missing in the draft Bill. 

Twenty years is a long time in the world of broadcast technology and it’s not before time that the 2003 Communications Act was revisited and updated to better serve contemporary audiences and consumers. 

Religious Britain has also evolved significantly over the last two decades. According to the most recent census England and Wales are less Christian now than they were. And, while there’s been growth in what the census refers to as ‘minority religions’ such as Islam, Hinduism, Sikh, so too has there been an increase in the number of those identifying as being of no particular faith at all.  

On the face of it, some would argue this is reason enough to jettison religious broadcasting. But while religiosity may be in decline in the UK and other parts of Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the complete opposite is true in the rest of the world. And, when considered from this perspective, when it comes to the Media Bill, broadcasting, and the broadcast coverage of religion, whether you personally have faith or not, could be said to be secondary. Religion is part of the world you live in. No one would ever argue that no-one living in a landlocked country or non-swimmers would have any interest in broadcast programmes about oceans or sea life. Even if we’re not particularly interested, no one would ever argue that these programmes shouldn’t be part of the broadcast media available. We all have the imagination to understand there is a relationship between the oceans and our own individual lives. Similarly, if you want to understand the world, you need to have an understanding of the impact religion has on your fellow global citizens. 

Which is why, from the Sandford St Martin Trust’s perspective, the glaring omission of any acknowledgement, definition, not to mention aims, obligations or protections for religious broadcasting in the Media Bill is not just disappointing, it is downright negligent. 

The draft Media Bill proposes loosening of the existing public service broadcasters’ (PSB) remit in such a way that current obligations to provide a range of programming including ‘education, sport, science, religion and other beliefs, social issues, matters of international significance or interest’ are replaced by the much less specific obligation to provide ‘a sufficient quantity of audiovisual content that… reflects the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions within the United Kingdom’.  

 The Sandford St Martin Trust believe this qualification is not only too vague to be enforceable, but also fails to indicate what a ‘sufficient’ quantity is.  

How, without targets, quotas or clear obligations around genres, will the quality and quantity of PSB provision will be assessed?  

Who will do the assessing? 

And what measures will they use to ensure audiences are getting the content they deserve? 

These concerns are prompted by what’s been an overall decline in the hours of content identified as religious broadcasting since 2003 and an increasing entrenched reluctance on broadcasters’ part to commit to commissioning content in this genre.  

Let me share with you what in the current context is an apocryphal story: 

In 2003, ITV successfully lobbied Ofcom for the removal of its PSB quotas for arts and religious output should be removed as their shows were failing to get good ratings. Ofcom agreed because it felt ‘changes to ITV’s public service obligations were necessary as the UK’s leading commercial broadcaster faced increased competition from multichannel services and so “trade-offs” had to be made.’ Further, they said ‘the entrance of new content providers (would) address the deficit’ – essentially: if ITV weren’t making the content, online broadcasters would make equally as good PSB content instead.  

Before going any further, I would argue that this premise was flawed from the outset. One doesn’t need to scratch too hard at the surface of the American version of religious broadcasting – where tele-evangelism is a business and not a public service – to get a sense of what new content providers might be interested in offering. 

But the truth is that no new content provider has made up for the loss the core PSB content since 2003, regardless. Instead, Channel 4 also lobbied to have the terms of its remit for specific genres removed. Currently it’s only the BBC who remain committed to producing religious content and even Auntie recently asked Ofcom to allow them to set and manage their own targets for key PSB genres – including religion – going forward. 

By 2015, Ofcom observed “ITV’s provision of religion and ethics has all but ceased”. At the BBC also, despite being supplemented by radio and online platforms, the quantity of religion and ethics programming declined by 6% between 2014 and 2018, the four years covered by Ofcom’s most recent review.  

Across all PSBs, research undertaken by Mediatique between 2016-2019 found a decline of 2.2% without inflation in Religious and Ethical content expenditure overall – a larger drop than in any of the other 12 genres considered. Mediatique went on to forecast a “stark illustration of declines” in PSB expenditure on Religion and Ethics first-run original content and said ‘This (decline) is in effect a “best case” scenario, particularly in the context of distressed PSB type genres… as revenues decline, and broadcasters seek to shave costs in line, they will continue to be incentivised to spend disproportionately on popular genres (drama; entertainment; factual entertainment) to maintain audiences, reducing to a bare minimum their expenditure on specialist genres… There will be no incentive to make more than the regulatorily imposed number of hours in “pure” PSB genres (where quotas exist) or to spend more than the bare minimum per hour.’ 

This decline might be justified if audiences weren’t interested but nor is that true. Research conducted by Ofcom before the pandemic found that audiences across all generational groups but particularly younger audiences, prioritise ‘programmes that reflect the full range of cultures and viewpoints of the people in the UK’ and ‘specialist programmes about the history, science, religion or the arts’ as important service aspects of PSB.  

So what’s going on?  

To summarise: when it comes to broadcasting about religion or belief, the house is on fire. The broadcasters tell us they’ve got the inferno under control. Ofcom, having warned everyone the electrics have been dodgy for years, now appear to have now shown up at the scene with a small bucket of water. Hot on their heels, the Department of Culture Media and Sport have arrived waving a copy of the draft Media Bill which they say they’ll use to blow out the fire but in fact it’s only serving to fan the flames. 

It’s not good enough. If they are truly going to serve the public, then public service broadcasters need to do much better and the Media Bill should hold them to it.