Betraying The Viewer 

1 January 2002

The 1988 White Paper, which led to the Broadcasting Act of 1990, was produced at the ideological high water point of free market thinking in the UK. The market could do no wrong, and the consensus politics of the post war years was dying.

An apparently successful series of privatisations had convinced the Conservatives that state regulation of industry should be minimised. Interventionism was a new evil, and the setting free market forces was seen as the recipe for a better Britain.

Little thought was given to the possibility that some industries might not suit this model. The view that everything would find its own level in the commercial jungle was automatically accepted.

In commercial broadcasting, the formula was to be light-touch regulation, with a paternalistic Independent Broadcasting Authority replaced by a new lightweight Independent Television Commission, its radio activities split off to the new Radio Authority, and its transmitters privatised.

As these changes happened, most journalists concentrated on the new process for awarding contracts – the franchise auction. Of particular interest to newspapers was the loss of TV-am’s contract to a higher bidder. The mathematics of this received particular attention and commentators asked whether franchise holders had ‘bought into’ the industry at too high a price.

TVam identMoving Image logo

This was a distraction from the real issue.

Mrs. Thatcher’s friendship with TV-am’s chief, Bruce Gyngell, received particular attention and the irony of losing that contract at the hands of the new system was not lost on commentators.

Of more interest, and much overlooked, has been one aspect of these changes overshadowed by the franchise process – that of so-called ‘light-touch’ regulation and what it means day-to-day.

One of the strengths of the original Television Act was ITV’s public service remit. Historically, the channel was a marriage of moneymaking activity with obligations about content and programme quality. Minimum quotas of each programme type were specified and these remained in place for almost 40 years. The shareholders came a clear second to the viewers. The companies remained profitable.

Some of the quotas were abandoned early on as the new ITC was ‘persuaded’ by franchisees, not to mention by government ministers, that the overall service to the viewer would be enhanced by the end of the specified-programme system.

Whether the regulator believed these arguments, or whether this was one of the most cynical pieces of lobbying in modern history, may never be known. The result, a more populist network with less challenging programmes, is there for all to see. Accusations of ‘dumbing-down’ are always met with protests of injured innocence by broadcasting executives, but the dilution of the public service remit is real enough. The claim that all this stems from the needs of competition in a multichannel environment is always trotted out, but it has never been explained why this required the ending of much that was best about the programme content.

It was only with the advent of the “News at Ten” row, nine years after the 1990 Broadcasting Act, that the full damage of ideology became evident, with the companies even disputing the regulator’s power to order any changes at all.

There are still quotas for news and children’s programmes, but the power of the regulator to specify even these is under attack. Television executives claim changes were inevitable. This is disingenuous – the needs of shareholders now outclass the needs of viewers. There has been demographic change in the industry, and young executives with no experience or memory of public service are in the driving seat. They are the new philistines of UK culture, people who have never heard of Sidney Bernstein or Howard Thomas.

The possible merger of the ITC and Oftel, creating a new super-regulator, may now be causing the ITC to become more demanding, but this is a classic case of firmly slamming a door long after the horse has bolted. It was thought in 1990 that ‘light touch regulation’ was just a journalist’s cliché. It now becomes horribly evident what this truly means and those who thought that ‘ITC’ was just new initials for the IBA have been shocked to realise how naive they were.

A significant ideological change has taken place and we only now begin to realise what this represents and the damage that has been done to public service broadcasting in the UK.

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