Regulating TV futures
As it came into being in 1997, the Broadcasting Standards Commission undertook a survey of the values people hold and their views on broadcasting (Regulating for Changing Values). The researchers revealed concerns at all levels about the ways in which society is moving and the shift that many detect in both standards and values, particularly the growth in antisocial acts and unsociable behaviour. Over 80 percent felt that standards of behaviour in society have worsened in recent years.
The root cause of this was seen to be social and economic. If the media were not blamed for what was happening, the respondents clearly expressed a concern about the media's influence. They had anxieties about the possible consequences of seeming to normalise unsociable tendencies, ranging from the increase in swearing and profanity to invasions of privacy. There was also a concern that broadcasting was seeking the lowest common denominator rather than continuing to pioneer experiment or provide intellectual and social challenge.
The debates are as old as broadcasting itself. Britain has traditionally sought to regulate broadcaster behaviour by insisting on positive requirements - accuracy, impartiality, range, diversity - as well as requiring negative protection from unfairness or unwarranted invasions of privacy and affronts to decency. The old debate has a modern edge with the explosion of new channels and new services. But there is still very little support for the notion that the simple removal of regulation is desirable.
Politicians and public alike are at one. In the BSC survey of 1997 only 20 percent were libertarian in the classic sense. Indeed, satellite and cable subscribers are slightly more likely than everybody else to feel that deregulation of broadcasting would make matters worse.
It is clear that there are massive changes happening in both the technology and the economics of broadcasting. The competitive pressures are now enormous and will go on having a significant impact on content, ambition and the provision of services. There is a trend towards merger, reducing the number of players, as well as globalisation, increasing the influence of an already dominant culture.
It is important in all of this that our own broadcasting system continues to have a significant public dimension which seeks to emphasise and support the general good of all citizens rather than just those who can afford to pay. This is the unique and continuing obligation of public service broadcasting, which has a specific brief to reflect the range, diversity and creativity of this society and serve its democratic and educational needs.
High quality broadcasting is vital for an informed and creative society. But society also needs an accountable media. All parties must be satisfied that the needs of both citizens and consumers continue to be met in the changes under way. Broadcasting is an educator and an eye-opener; it can also be a lifeline for many. Its importance to our culture and to our nation's shared values make it essential that whatever form regulation takes in the future, broadcasting will be as good then as it has been up to now.
Stephen Whittle is director of the Broadcasting Standards Commission
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999