Media regulation is not just about Leveson, says Lords
Regulation of the media has again been at the top of the news agenda recently, but a report published today by the House of Lords Communications Committee says that these discussions have tended to miss the bigger picture and vital issues have largely been left out of the debate.
Whilst the discussions over Leveson have rumbled on, the Committee has investigated the issues presented by media convergence, for example:
- newspapers are no longer just printed on paper, but also have websites with up-to-the-minute information, including videos which look like TV;
- broadcasters do not only beam signals to TV aerials or satellite dishes but also have websites carrying articles which can look more like a printed page; and
- families can still sit down together at a specified time to watch a TV programme, but they can also be watched at a later date on the internet - whenever is most convenient for the viewer.
The Committee believes that these changes are profound and that the regulatory framework across the media is creaking. Ahead of the Government's imminent White Paper on communications, the Committee recommends that:
- the dynamism of the media sector today means that the existing pattern of updating the Communications Bill every ten years or so no longer provides an adequate basis for regulating the media industry, so the Government must ensure that forthcoming legislation is drafted in such a way as to enable flexibility to adapt to an ever changing media environment;
- new technologies and behaviours are evolving more quickly than regulatory protections and so action is required to ensure a safer environment for content accessed via the internet and to continue to meet public expectations of content standards;
- the Government should charge Ofcom with conducting research into what UK audiences expect in terms of the standards of internet content available through digital intermediaries such as internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines;
- the Government and Ofcom need to get ahead of the curve on shaping profoundly different regulatory arrangements by joining up regulation across the media as a whole;
- the Government should conduct a comprehensive review of public service broadcasting (PSB) in the round, to include not just the BBC but all other providers, so as to secure its future in the converged world;
- consideration must be given to the BBC's economic impact, how this might best promote the public good and what action should be taken to ensure the prominence of PSB is maintained. At the same time, the market - above all the newspaper industry - must be reassured that it too has a secure foothold in the converged world; and
- Ofcom's competition powers should be clarified, but the hurdle for intervention should be high.
Committee Chairman, Lord Inglewood, said:
“The media has been at the top of the news agenda for some time, but the debate has been too insular and vital issues have been left out of the discussions, particularly around the changing way in which we consume media today. The elephant in the room has been the impact of technological change - the internet.
“Sitting over most of the media we consume is a complicated framework of rules and regulations. These are supposed to make sure the content the UK public engages with meets their expectations. However, the simple days have gone. Content does not just reach us from three or four TV channels but from all over the world and from sources which do not fit into neat categories like TV, radio or newspapers.
“The boundaries between the different ways we access content are blurring so fast that the framework which sits over them is losing its grip. Eventually, we will reach a certain point where it will stop doing its job of ensuring content meets the public's expectations, and as a result will start to lose their trust. This is a serious risk and means that regulation must become much smarter and more flexible to encompass a converging media world, with regulation less fixated on how content is delivered or where it comes from.
“And because the media landscape is changing at such a pace, the Government must ensure that the legislation which creates the framework overseeing content remains relevant for the life of each Communications Act. The Committee believes the Act itself needs to be flexible, allowing for amendments to be made in the interim years between wholesale rewrites. In this way, the Government will future-proof legislation to ensure that regulation can adapt quickly to changes brought about by media convergence as they emerge.
“The internet has driven extraordinary changes in the media landscape and the barriers to anyone creating content and sharing it with the world are much lower. However, the people who make that content available to UK audiences do not necessarily know what UK consumers expect from it. We would like to see Ofcom charged with researching audience expectations and providing the findings to platforms such as Google, YouTube and ISPs, allowing them to match their voluntary initiatives as far as possible to the expectations of UK audiences.
“We are also concerned that public service broadcasting could be sidelined by convergence and we are urging the Government to act quickly to protect it. Whilst emerging competition from other television providers is hugely welcome in affording a far greater choice of programmes for the public, the enduring values of PSB must be safeguarded.
“The converged world is a marvellous place, breathing new life into creativity, competition, innovation and choice. People access different content in different ways and on different platforms; all of which operate and are regulated in slightly different ways. The Committee believes that consumers in the UK have a right to bring accurate expectations to content, no matter what it is or how they access it; the challenge now is for the Government to act quickly enough to ensure that this happens.”
To read a copy of the Committee's report and to watch videos of Lord Inglewood explaining each chapter of the report, visit the Committee's webpage.