BECTU’s response to PSB review

BECTU has submitted its response to Ofcom’s second Public Service Broadcasting review.

Two fundamental questions were presented by the regulator when it launched its review in April:

  • How should PSB be funded in future?
  • How should PSB content be delivered in future?

Picture of ITN building

Future funding of PSB

On the funding question Ofcom suggested four options:

  1. Direct public funding including direct taxation;
  2. Opening up licence fee funding/BBC assets to other providers (often referred to as ‘top-slicing’);
  3. Regulatory assets including privileged access to spectrum and increased advertising minutage;
  4. Industry levies.

BECTU’s submission is emphatic about the union’s support for options 3 and 4 (which BECTU does not see as mutually exclusive); the union registers its clear opposition to both options 1 and 2.

The submission states:

We oppose direct public funding because this represents a politically vulnerable method of finance which would have negative implications for editorial independence and creative freedom and could easily become extremely unpopular with the public.

Explaining the union’s position on option 2, the document says:

We are fundamentally opposed to opening up licence fee funding to other providers or to selling off BBC assets. In our view this model does not provide for the funding of broadcasters in addition to the BBC but directly at the expense of the BBC. It seems completely counter to Ofcom’s own self-proclaimed view of the BBC as the cornerstone of PSB.

It would weaken the BBC’s role as our central PSB provider; redirect public resources to private profit; potentially impose an extra layer of chaotic and wasteful competition with high transaction costs… and lead to a net reduction in original PSB production…

Reinforcing BECTU’s support for options 3 and 4, BECTU says:

We favour the exploration of using ‘regulatory assets’ as a funding source. Gifted or discounted spectrum pricing in exchange for the provision of a PSB service is an attractive option - as is the use of additional revenue from any increased minutage that follows from the revision of the Audio Visual Media Services Directive or possibly a licence fee rebate. We believe, however, that the use of regulatory assets will, in itself, be insufficient to fill the funding gap.

We therefore strongly favour the option of industry funding through levies on non-PSB providers. We believe, for example, that a levy on the turnover of non-PSB broadcasters licensed in the UK (eg BSkyB) could provide significant resources to fill the PSB funding gap…

In a sense, BSkyB and others have been parasitic on the basic framework provided by PSB. It would therefore be entirely justified and affordable to redirect some of their resources to PSB. In so far as other platform operators (eg cable, telecoms, internet service providers) also benefit from the underlying PSB framework, consideration should also be given to extending the levy into these areas.

Content delivery

Looking at the options for delivering public service content in future, BECTU favours “evolution” as the most appropriate model which would include the maintenance of the BBC as a core provider, with current commercial PSB providers to retain public service content responsibilities.

“The future good health of PSB affects us all and I hope that our members and representatives will take the time to read the full submission and to do everything they can to support our work on the consultation as it proceeds”

BECTU has rejected the suggestions that the BBC might be the only public service broadcasting going forward, or that the BBC and Channel 4 should be the only broadcasters to focus on PSB.

Similarly BECTU is against setting up a new funding agency for public service content linked to the withdrawal of PSB requirements from existing commercial providers.

BECTU believes that Ofcom’s suggested alternatives to the evolutionary model would undermine widespread acceptance that high quality PSB can only be delivered from a variety of sources.

Similarly, if the BBC were to be isolated as the sole provider, or confined to a PSB silo along with Channel 4, then the ecology which has created the current, much valued, system would be destroyed.

Whilst BECTU’s response does recognise the funding challenges presented by digital switchover, the union is urging Ofcom to consider the full range of possible policy solutions and to resist pressure, particularly from the commercial broadcasters, in the run up to digital switchover.

BECTU has also proposed that Ofcom take full account of the impact of independent producers’ terms of trade on public service broadcasters:

Failing any alteration in the terms of trade, Ofcom should actively consider a reduction in the broadcasters’ independent quota obligations - certainly in the case of ITV.

BECTU’s submission also supports a continuing strong role for C4 and ITV in respect of PSB. The union believes that Five’s PSB status, already at the lowest level, should not be reduced further.

BECTU urges Ofcom to:

  • take active account of the contribution which broadcasters in the nations and regions make to the UK’s PSB output;
  • to resist any moves to devolve responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament and away from the Department of Culture Media and Sport;
  • to encourage commercial PSBs in Wales, alongside the BBC and S4C;
  • to recognise UTV’s strength in Northern Ireland as an example of the positive effects of the evolutionary model.

BECTU states:

We believe that a plural PSB model is highly appropriate and that demands for more original material should be addressed as much to commercial PSBs as to the BBC in the nations and regions. Furthermore, we specifically support the development of local television, as represented by bbcLocal.

In looking at how to retain and develop the best aspects of PSB, BECTU urges Ofcom to resist ITV’s proposals to cut £40 million a year from its regional news operation. BECTU’s campaign with fellow broadcasting unions to Save ITV News and the union’s support for Border TV’s Save Lookaround campaign has been well publicised.

BECTU’s submission says:

We are already publically and strongly opposed to ITV’s proposals for a reduction in the number of regions and for a drastic reduction in regional news budgets. Furthermore we regard ITV’s amended proposals - which retain deep cuts in regional news budgets - as unacceptable.

BECTU’s last, but by no means less committed, plea to Ofcom is for the regulator to take positive action to ensure that UK originated childrens’ programming is broadcast by the main broadcasters and is widely available. BECTU accepts that additional funding will be required to ensure that commercial broadcasters can join with the BBC and S4C to ensure that high quality production of children’s output can continue.

Future good health of PSB

Commenting on the submission BECTU’s General Secretary, Gerry Morrissey, said: “BECTU’s response is an important piece of work and we thank our Research Officer Andy Egan for his efforts on our behalf.

“Ofcom’s review into PSB affects the majority of BECTU’s membership, both staff and freelance, in the BBC, across commercial broadcasting, in the nations and regions, and in our London and Regional Production Divisions.

“The future good health of PSB affects us all and I hope that our members and representatives will take the time to read our response and to do everything they can to support our work on the consultation as it proceeds.”

Ofcom is pledged to consider the union’s response along with the many others to be submitted by broadcasters, production companies, employer groups, campaign organisations and members of the public. The deadline for submissions is 19 June 2008.

Ofcom will consider the submissions and publish a further report in the autumn to launch a second phase of consultation.

Find out more about Ofcom’s second Public Service Broadcasting review and read BECTU’s submission in full.

Saturday 14 June 2008