Consultation prior to Communications White Paper - BECTU's comments to DCMS

23 May 2000

To: DCMS/DTI Communications Reform Team

Dear Colleagues

Communications Reform White Paper

We write in response to your invitation to submit comments in advance of the White Paper. We do not wish at this stage in the debate to put forward a detailed set of policy proposals. However, we are happy to set out in summary form below our broad approach to some of the key issues likely to emerge in the debate:


  1. We note the increasing interest in reforming our regulatory structure to fit the new era of digital convergence - especially between the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors. This is reflected not just in our domestic debate but in the European Commission's Communications Review and related public consultation, in which we have participated.

  2. Our strongly held view, in line with that of the European Commission, is that we should retain a distinction between regulation of transmission and regulation of content. For us, however, this begs the further key question of what is meant by 'content'. In our view, this has a broader relevance than that of the programming on screen. It should include:

    • positive programming requirements such as those governing the quality and diversity of programming

    • programme origination, ie requirements governing the levels of original production, regional production, European production and independent production

    • media ownership, including particularly media pluralism and concentration.

  3. In all of these areas, we believe that broadcasting or 'content' regulation should continue to be separate from more general infrastructural regulation. Whether or not there is a single overriding regulatory institution, we believe strongly that there should be a broadcasting-specific regulatory agency or organisation working to broadcasting specific legislative requirements and regulations. Submergence of broadcasting issues - with all their broader democratic and cultural aspects - in a single competition - based regulatory structure would be, in our view, completely unacceptable.

  4. In conjunction with regulatory reform, we are interested in stronger mechanisms of accountability for the regulators. For example, we would support a requirement that all senior appointments to broadcasting regulatory bodies (including the BBC Board of Governors) should be subject to scrutiny by the Parliamentary Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.

  5. Within the UK-wide framework of primary legislation and regulation, we specifically support strong requirements for accountability to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, including

    • an option to consult these bodies on all major broadcasting issues.

    • the right of the Parliament/Assemblies to scrutinise key broadcasting appointments in their areas.

    • an obligation on broadcasters to report to the Parliament/Assemblies, or its relevant committee, on at least an annual basis, and to respond to any additional summons when required.

    • the composition of the Board of any regulatory body to include specific and separate representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  6. We wish to see the retention of a central role for public service broadcasting in the UK encompassing both the BBC and commercial broadcasters governed by strong, positive programming requirements. In the face of arguably already - discernible trends towards a watering down of PSB standards and to a greater prevalence of downmarket programming, we believe that maintaining strong PSB criteria at the core of British broadcasting is essential.

  7. We believe our future policy and regulatory approach should recognise the non-market objectives associated with PSB and identified clearly in the EU Amsterdam Protocol ie 'the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society' and 'the need to preserve media pluralism'.

  8. We therefore favour retention of strong positive programming regulations and see no justification at this point for a relaxation in this area in the new multichannel environment. Indeed, we would wish the positive requirements associated with PSB to be extended wherever feasible to digital, satellite and cable channels, while making due allowance for the specialist nature of many of these.


  9. We note the increasing debate, especially in relation to ITV, concerning the possible relaxation of ownership regulations. While recognising the changing context, we believe the starting position for any reform should be that while excessive concentration of ownership is a matter of concern in any industry, in the media it is a potential threat to democracy. Any reform proposals should continue to take account of this. We reserve our overall position as to whether any relaxation is justified and set out the following arguments on a hypothetical basis only.

  10. If the specific ownership regulations governing ITV were to be relaxed, we believe that this might only be acceptable if a key underlying rationale for ITV - ie, its regional character - were retained. ITV's distinctive feature remains its regional structure and the related regional franchise commitments on programme origination.

  11. We have no confidence that any significant commitment to genuinely regional programming and regional news output would survive a relaxation of ownership rules and consequent further concentration of ownership. We therefore believe that as a quid pro quo for any relaxation on ownership, it would be essential that there should be much stronger requirements - in primary legislation - governing regional programme origination and regional news production. Without this, the complete dilution of ITV's regional character - already too much in evidence - would be inevitable.

  12. Such requirements on ITV regional programming should include:

    • a commitment to a full range of programming (include news output and other programme strands)

    • a commitment to maintaining a range of regionally-based staff and freelance labour and regional production facilities

    • a requirement for minimum levels of network production from each franchise holder

    • a requirement for regionally-based management with sufficient autonomy over programme production
  13. It is not clear to us at this stage whether and to what extent the reform proposals will encompass the BBC and its forthcoming Charter renewal. We strongly favour the continuation of separate regulation through a (more accountable) Board of Governors. We believe that it is vital, in this way, to retain the continuing distinctive character of the BBC as one of the world's leading public service broadcasters.

We hope you will take note of our views in the further development of policy proposals for the White Paper.

Yours sincerely

Roger Bolton
General Secretary

23 May 2000

Last updated 16 December 2000