Ofcom Call for evidence: Public Service Broadcasters and the UK Production Sector

Ofcom have posted a call for evidence from independent producers in the public service broadcast sector:

The current regulatory rules and guidance were designed when the sector and the way audiences consumed content were very different. Our goal is to understand the impact of regulation on that relationship as it adapts to evolving market conditions. Specifically, we are seeking evidence on whether any rule changes might be needed to further benefit viewers, to better support the financial sustainability of producers and commissioners, and secure the diversity and attractiveness of the sector. To inform our recommendations to government, we are seeking evidence and information from stakeholders about the effectiveness now and in the future of the core aspects of regulation which apply in this area.

I’ve put together some initial thoughts for a response to the Ofcom consultation on public service media. The questions that Ofcom wants addressing are in italics. The main focus I’ve taken is to address structural inequality and to promote not-for-private-profit mutuals and cooperatives. The deadline for submissions is 16th March. I’m happy to discuss offline.

Rob :slight_smile:

Question 1: Given changes to audience consumption patterns and wider market developments, is there any aspect of Ofcom’s Guidance on commissioning of independent productions which Ofcom should update to ensure it remains fit-for-purpose?

While the terms on which the BBC and other public service broadcasters operate are established in UK statute, and are supervised by Ofcom, the opportunity for citizens to engage in any scrutiny and development of BBC or other public service media services, management and governance, is limited and remote. Better Media recommends that any further development of the guidance for the commissioning of public service media content must be subject to frequent review using citizen engagement, participation and consultation principles, such as citizens panels and juries.

Better Media recommends that Ofcom’s development of its guidance for the commissioning of public service content should be undertaken within a regulatory framework that prioritises citizen engagement, consultation and deliberation principles. This should include both in the regulation of content, the governance of public service producers, and the commissioning process used to identify programming and platform priorities. The aim of these mechanisms must be to bring together different views, experiences and opinions of citizens across the UK, in a way that is representative of distribution of citizen traditions and cultural expectations across the whole of UK society, so that they can be more widely dispersed away from the present London-centric provision.

These deliberation principles must have the primary aim of drawing together differing views from individual citizens and civic society groups, public authorities, public services, faith groups, and independent pressure groups, to ensure that there is an accessible and inclusive regulatory platform for non-majority and non-traditional opinions to be expressed and developed. Guidance for the commissioning principle for public service content should explicitly acknowledge that citizens are well able, and well qualified, to express their own opinions of their social experiences, and are well qualifies to talk about their own social needs, as they themselves perceive and experience them, and not as mediated by executive producers who largely recognises audiences as passive consum-ers within an unregulated commercial context.

Better Media recommends that civic and social sector organisations, including charities and mutual aid groups, not-for-private-profit groups, cooperatives, and so on, are actively supported in the process of deliberation and co-development. The civic sector should be empowered to set the terms and scope that is then applied in the commissioning of public service content. These groups must be invited to assist setting the terms of any civic deliberation that informs both the policy and the practice of public service media content development, especially in relation to the issues and social problems that citizens groups may wish to address.

This process of deliberation must report frequently and widely by providing updates to stakeholders and the public, both on the function of the process of engagement, and the outcomes of this engagement in terms of changes in the fo-cus of public service media content output. These updates must indicate how the findings of these deliberations will be incorporated into the policy principles and development practices of Ofcom and the governing principles of not-for-private-profit public service media organisations.

In addition, Better Media recommends that these consultation processes must demonstrate clear separation between the stakeholders and the competing media organisations seeking commis-sions, especially commercial and corporate interest groups, private lobby groups, and trade associ-ations. All consultation must be undertaken using arms-length and transparent representation principles, with any professional and corporate lobby groups required to openly declare their in-terests and report the terms of their engagement with DCMS, Ofcom and any commissioned public service content providers, while simultaneously being subject to the aforementioned public and citizen scrutiny process.

Question 2: Is there any change to the independent production quota which Ofcom should recom-mend to Government as part of its ‘Small Screen Big Debate’ programme?

Better Media anticipates that with proper regulatory framework, effective separation of commer-cial and public service content must be maintained. If a commercial broadcaster or media producer wishes to preserve their freedom to operate in the commercial marketplace, they should be de-nied access to both direct and indirect state subsidies as provided in the form of support for public sector content. A social value and social gain test should be incorporated into the commissioning principles of public sector media that determines that public subsidy can only go to not-for-profit, cooperative and mutual organisations that are constituted with the express purpose to serve the public good.

Commercial organisations should not benefit from public subsidy, which should be directed to co-operative and mutual not-for-private-profit producers and platform providers. The Audio Content Fund is an instance where commercial media providers receive public subsidy that is not available to alternative and independent providers. Many who seek to serve the public good in alternative and non-traditional ways are excluded because there is a structural bias to legacy forms of pro-gramme making. Better Media suggests that the focus on social value and social gain better antici-pates the ongoing decentralising of the production and distribution process for media content, and is a model that should be incorporated from public procurement practices following the Social Val-ue Act 2012.

The principle of public support for media content should be focussed only on organisations that are committed to defined social gain priorities, such as citizen education, civic deliberation and the fostering of civic media literacies. Ofcom’s role as the principal platform regulator, economy regula-tor and content regulator must therefore be reviewed, and an alternative arms-length structure clearly delineated and put in place. Better Media recommends that a new independent regulator of public service media content should be established to serve the needs of civic society, separate from Ofcom, and responsible for all public service and community media regulation, as determined through the process of citizen deliberative and mutual public engagement and development.

Question 3: Do you have any recommendations for potential changes to the definitions of ‘qualify-ing programmes’ or ‘independent production’ which Ofcom should recommend to Government as part of its ‘Small Screen Big Debate’ programme?

Ofcom and DCMS should not seek to determine the choices and programming decisions of pro-ducers and content providers, either by quota or by decree. However, Better Media believes that support for emerging and independent, cooperative, and not-for-profit producers should be guided and supported as part of a wider programme of inclusive social gain programming, based on the identification of specific social needs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the lack of capaci-ty for responsive and relevant community-focussed communications that are able to adapt to suit the localised needs, and which can be rooted in the different cultural expectations of communities across the UK. Ofcom’s failure to adapt to the Covid-19 lockdown by supporting community media and alternative forms of community-communications, is an illustration of the limitations of the pre-sent regime. Better Media recommends that the commissioning policies for public service media must therefore be directed towards addressing structural inequity in all its forms, poverty, racism and a lack of representation in civic life, across all communities in the UK.

The priorities of the public service media should be identified and articulated in a similar manner to those in Nesta’s 2030 strategy to support public good and actively improve lives in the UK. Better Media recommends that public service media in the UK must be given a defined and specific social mission which goes beyond consumerist and passive models of audience engagement, and treats people as active citizens in values communities.

Better Media recommends, therefore, that the regulatory process for the commissioning of public service content should only support content that is designed to serve an explicit and well-defined public needs. Public sector content should only be commissioned by either the BBC or other media agencies if it is able to addresses inequality, social exclusion and discrimination, as these factors are manifest in multiple forms and structural relationships across all parts of the UK. The identification of these social development and renewal requirements must be determined locally for each na-tion, region and community in a process of regulated subsidiarity, devolution, citizen participation and accountability. Funding must be guaranteed at the lowest level of operation as defined by so-cial need.

The lack of diversity and inclusion in the UK media production sectors, the low level of representa-tion in media content, and the absence of engagement by communities, differs widely according to rural or urban location, north or south, and often within specific localities. Public service content is too often generalising and universalising, being designed to serve broad expectations of national life, and not the specific needs of citizens living in places with different histories, concerns or capac-ity for social renewal. Better Media believes that a process of active investment by an independent federated agency for public service content should determine which media content is commis-sioned, produced and distributed, according to publicly discussed local needs and preferences.

Furthermore, Better Media believes that this federated agency for public service content should explicitly address structural inequality and bias as historically demonstrated in the legacy commis-sioning and institutional governance process. The opening up of the public service media content non-established media providers is essential for ensuring the UK has a pluralistic public and commercial media system with a diversity of content supply to balance the monopolistic and corporate institutional providers.