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Public service broadcasting:

politics and policy

Mandy Merck

The media is an industry unlike any other. It informs, influences and engenders public
debate. Debate and discussion over the airwaves has become a central feature of our
culture and way of life. In an advanced democracy such as ours, it is important that
there are as many voices competing for the attention of the nation’s viewers and
listeners as possible.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for National Heritage
Public policy in broadcasting has always been, and will continue to be, of critical
importance. The growth of multi-media industries and their significance in all aspects
of our lives means that public policy must address the challenges of technological
innovations, ownership issues and matters of content and standards.

Dr John Cunningham, Labour Heritage Spokesman


he anodyne opening of the Broadcasting debate in the House of Commons
(16 April 1996) eventually gave way to contention, but not the sort that
readers of Radical Philosophy might have expected. All parties agreed with
the announcement by the Minister for National Heritage that television was on the
verge of a ‘revolution even more significant than the change from black and white
to colour’, in which digital technology, fibre-optic cable and satellite transmission
could vastly multiply the number of channels, as well as offering possibilities
ranging from interactive services to the replacement of every single set in the
country. And everyone averred that Britain’s ‘unique tradition of public service
broadcasting’ should be upheld.

But on the question of maintaining that service through the regulation of
ownership, Labour declared a policy which left commentators, ranging from
the Guardian to the government, slightly stunned. Where the Tories predictably
proposed the extension of cross-ownership provisions to enable Channel 3
franchises to be purchased by groups controlling not the current 15 per cent but 20
per cent of the national press, Labour media spokesman Lewis Moonie replied that
he saw ‘no reason why any player should be arbitrarily excluded from the market
by the introduction of the test proposed in the Bill’. The Guardian made great
sport of this ‘Moonie left’ revision to Labour’s traditional commitment to control
media ownership, but, not for the first time, it got its history wrong. Far from
being a ‘sudden transformation’ in whatever passes for centre-left thought,
Labour’s media policy has been moving market-wise for years.

In 1993, Ian Hargreaves – now editor of the New Statesman, then deputy editor
of the Financial Times, previously the BBC’s Head of News and Current Affairs published a pamplet for the Demos think-tank arguing for the privatization of the


Radical Philosophy

79 (SeptlOct


Corporation. Hargreaves’ Sharper Vision was focused on two objectives: consumer
satisfaction and a stronger broadcasting industry. In his unabashed preoccupation
with industrial policy, the former was allotted just 5 pages of a 57-page document.

The pamphlet adumbrated the familiar criticisms of the BBC (dependence upon the
government for funding, senior appointments and regulation; declining market
share; lack of finance for new activities), but its central emphasis was on its
financial separation, as a publicly owned body, from the rest of British
broadcasting. There too, Hargreaves argued, current regulatory structures were
lamentable, permitting US-citizen-of-convenience Rupert Murdoch to control 37
per cent of UK newspaper sales and enter the lucrative home satellite market,
while restricting mergers between Britain’s commercial television companies and
between its newspapers, television and telephone interests at large.

Cue the buzzword of the 1990s: ‘convergence’. As Hargreaves pointed out, new
developments in cable technology have enabled telecommunications companies
to add video to their voice and data transmission services, potentially transforming
our television screens into interactive facilities for everything from voting to
banking, and thus securing the ‘multi-media convergence of the entertainment,
information, telecommunications, broadcasting and consumer electronics
industries’. But again, the anti-monopoly restrictions on the national leader in
telephony, British Telecom, have prevented it from entering the UK broadcasting
market, while facilitating the arrival of American utilities.

Hargreaves’ response to this situation was not the Old Labour policy of
divestment, not even of the outrageous plum awarded to Murdoch by the Torysanctioned merger of his Luxembourg-based Sky satellite with the floundering
British BSB. (Gone are the pre-election days of 1992, when then Labour media
spokesman Robin Corbett could promise that his first ministerial act would be to
offer Murdoch the choice of reducing his share in BSkyB to 20 per cent or
divesting himself of his UK newspapers.) Instead, the media’s technological
convergence was taken as a warrant for its economic convergence. The vision in
question was the enticing one of market competition and corporate concentration
combined, in which a privately owned BBC would be free to seek investors where
it chose, and thus grow from its current size (twice that of its next nineteen British
rivals together) to a proper international ‘player’, able to take on Bertelsmann and
Berlusconi, if not Murdoch and Time Warner. Such an organization could seek the
bulk of its funding from advertising and specialized subscription channels, while
retaining public finance for services ‘of a non-commercial character’. As for its
commercial rivals, they too could be the beneficiaries of deregulation, no longer
fragmented by ownership restrictions and requisite quotas of independent productions, able to compete directly with BBC Plc for revenue as well as viewers. For
the first time since the introduction of commercial television in the 1950s, the
gloves would be removed from the British duopoly of a licence-funded national
broadcaster and a regulated private system financed by advertising.

Demos is an independent think-tank, but media deregulation has attracted
significant Labour support. Its most outspoken advocate is Gerald Kaufman, who
left the Shadow Cabinet in 1992 to become chair of parliament’s National Heritage
Select Committee and a regular contributor to the press on media matters. A bornagain enthusiast of the information superhighway (‘exploding beyond regulation
and almost beyond imagining’), Kaufman reiterated his support for ‘more crossmedia ownership, not less’ in the April debate, calling for the construction of a
‘United Kingdom conglomerate powerful enough to take on the world’s biggest


conglomerates’ – composed of a privatized BBC in partnership with, among
others, British Telecom.

Despite his chairmanship of the National Heritage Committee and the column
inches thoughtfully provided by newspapers hoping to profit from his proposals,
Kaufman might be dismissed as being on Labour’s outside right, were it not for
the fact that his ‘national champions’ strategy has secured cabinet-level support
within the party. Two years ago, for its conference on 21st Century Media, Labour
released a discussion paper calling for the relaxation of restrictions on domestic
media ownership in exchange for the regulation of media output. The ban on UK
newspapers and telephone companies taking over commercial broadcasting would
be lifted, enabling a ‘flourishing UK industry’ to exploit its broadcasting expertise
and the English language to become ‘a major global player in the new international communications market’. Meanwhile, pluralism, quality and universality
of access could be maintained by a variety of hastily sketched mechanisms,
ranging from the regulation of any single company’s total media share (a policy
then advocated by the Pearson group, owners of Hargreaves’ FT) to EC minima
on European-originated productions. But unlike Kaufman, the 21 st Century
statement steered clear of the licence fee. In exchange for the expansion of the
BBC’s commercial activities internationally, the party reiterated its support for the
public funding of its domestic services. However, Labour’s fidelity to this
principle cannot be assumed. By August this year, at least one media commentator
was warning that the Opposition may support the incipient Conservative call for
the privatization of Channel 4.

The 1994 Labour statement had its opponents. One reply, from the television
independent Fulcrum Productions, observed that the Tory relaxation of Channel 3
ownership rules had already stimulated a rash of take-overs, resulting in the
control of 70 per cent of ITV advertising sales by only three companies. By
summer 1994, these take-overs had resulted in mass redundancies, a shift of
management control from the regions to London and an unarguable deterioration in
programme quality. As for increased industrial competitiveness, Fulcrum cited
evidence that the leading national economies, for example Japan, encouraged
domestic rivalry rather than concentration of ownership – as well as the instructive
history of the British automobile industry, which has been merged nearly out of
existence. Finally, Fulcrum reiterated a point as universally conceded as it is
ignored: that the media is indeed an industry unlike others, in which corporate
interests or individual proprietors may exert undue influence on public affairs.

Since then, further government concessions, combined with the strategic
purchase by the larger Channel 3 companies of minority shareholdings in the
smaller, have led to a greater concentration of television ownership – but one
which Labour still deems insufficient. And competitiveness? In 1996, the Channel
3 broadcasters are still losing viewers to BSkyB and BBC 1. Granada are
considering a bid to take over the 75 per cent of the merged Yorkshire-Tyne Tees
company which they don’t already own. And Scotland’s two ITV companies have
entered into merger talks, heralded as the first step to a single pan-Scottish media
company. Among the significant parties to these discussions is the Mirror Group,
one of the two largest shareholders of Scottish Television. And this returns us to
the current Broadcasting Bill.

As the owner of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, the Daily Record, the
People, and 43 per cent of the Independent and Independent on Sunday, the Mirror
Group controls 23 per cent of the national newspaper market. This would make it,


along with Murdoch’s News International,
inelegible to purchase a Channel 3 television
licence under the terms of the Bill. When Labour
challenged the new 20 per cent ceiling in the April
Commons debate, the Tories were quick to claim
favoured treatment for the one national group
which has historically supported the Opposition.

What they didn’t discuss was their own deal with
Rupert Murdoch, permitting BSkyB to set up a
UK subscription satellite system broadcasting
digital television, in exchange for an undertaking
to install its dishes on top of every British
classroom. This, in turn, was prompted by
Labour’s much-publicized ‘coup’ securing BT’s
pledge to cable every school and library in the
land in exchange for the right to sell television
services down its telephone lines.

And while all this was being negotiated, Clive
Hollick, originally a moneybroker granted a
Labour peerage by Neil Kinnock, was about to
take advantage of the terms of the new Bill to
merge his television group MAl (owners of the
Channel 3 companies Meridian and Anglia) with
United newspapers (owners of both Express titles
and the Daily Star). The merger gives United MAl almost £2 billion annual
turnover in television, newspapers, periodicals and finance, as well as, in Hollick’s
description, ‘the outlets to distribute content in whatever the appropriate format
might be’. (The synergy between television channels required by law to be·
politically impartial and the true blue Express papers will be interesting to
Meanwhile, the BBC retains its public service charter until 2006, although its
newly announced separation of programme production from distribution and sales
facilitates both its own controversial moves to an NHS-style internal market and
its future break-up in the event of privatization. The much-lamented merging of
the World Service’s news progamming with domestic radio is merely the most
audible manifestation of this drive to reduce costs. Moreover, the innovations
judged necessary to secure Tory support for a continued licence fee (including the
pioneering of a terrestrial digital service, a 24-hour news channel and themed
subscription channels) will make the Corporation even more enticing to private
predators. In the 21 June New Statesman, BBC Director General John Birt
defended these commercial activities as the means to a non-commercial, public
service end. His interviewer was the magazine’s new editor, who by then could
add ex-editor of the Independent to his CV, after resigning from that post at the
behest of its Mirror Group management, whose right to control still greater
sections of the British media the Labour Party now champions. No wonder lan
Hargreaves’s article concludes that ‘in these days [when] Labour speaks the
language of the market on media issues more volubly than the government, Birt
knows there are no reliable rules in the political game to come.’

From 1988 to 1991, Mandy Merck was Series Editor of Out on Tuesday and Programme Editor
of Saturday Night Out, made by Fulcrum Productions for Channel 4 and the BBC.


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