Public Service Broadcasting in the United Kingdom: Issues and Lessons

2006-06-14
 
  Public service broadcasting (PSB) has a long and profound history in Britain. It has been well funded and has produced many high quality programs. Its production are generally original and innovative with new ‘home-grown’UK content rather than repeats or programmes that are bought in from abroad such as the USA. Main purposes of the PSB in UK are four-fold: a) To inform and to increase public’s understanding of the world through news, information and analysis of current events and ideas. b) To encourage public’s interest and knowledge of arts, science, history and other topics through understandable programmes that can also encourage informal learning (such as learning at home). c) To reflect and strengthen public’s cultural identity through original programming at UK national and regional levels, occasionally bringing audiences together for shared experiences. d) To make public aware of different cultures and other points of view, through programmes that reflect the lives of other people and other communities, both within the UK and elsewhere.
  There are four television broadcasters providing five nationwide analogue terrestrial television channels in the UK - the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Independent Television (ITV), Channel 4 and Channel 5. BBC operates two TV channels, namely BBC 1 and BBC 2. On radio, BBC is the sole public operator. Among those broadcasters, only BBC is solely publicly funded by government allotment through revenue generated from the collection of license fee. The fee is a legally bounded charge, compulsory for all UK households with television sets. Channel 4 is another publicly owned PSB operator. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is sustained from advertising revenue, same as the two privately owned broadcasters, ITV and Channel 5.

Key Current Issues

  Public service broadcasting in UK is facing two main problems. On the one hand, it has to cope with the challenge imposed by the change in the mode of signal transmission (from analogue to digital); on the other, governance of the BBC has been under increased public scrutiny.

Analogue Switchover - the Problem

  By 2012, television broadcasting service in Britain will go entirely digital. This will include PSBs. Digitalisation of television broadcast brings much benefit to audiences. Quality of visual and audio contents will be higher and ever more choices in channels can be selected on the terrestrial platform. However, digital broadcasting will pose a challenge for the future of public service broadcasting.
  The two privately owned PSBs, ITV and Five, are required by their analogue licences to broadcast public service content. However, post analogue switch-off, there will be no incentive for them to continue to provide expensive public service programming; they will be free to broadcast under a fully commercialised digital television licence. Channel 4, as a public corporation, will still have public service obligations, but fears that it will lose both audience and advertising share in the multi-channel world, and thus be unable to fund these programmes. That would leave the BBC as the only public service broadcaster.
The UK and its broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, believe in the importance of there being a plurality of public service providers – “competition for quality”. Ofcom has proposed putting public funds towards a “public service publisher”, that is an operator which makes public service programmes for distribution across all media platforms.
  This idea is still being discussed, and no final outcome is yet agreed.

BBC Governance

  Governance of PSB broadcasters is another important issue for present day PSB in the UK. With possible falling audience share in the coming years, PSB is under pressure to justify its existence and its use of public funds. Public commitment to the principles and funding of PSB is necessary. The BBC, as the largest PSB operator in the country, has been placed at the focus of concern. Reform within the institution is called for. It is believed that once the BBC operation has a high transparency and accountability, public trusts can be gained and sufficient public funding can be ensured. One of the existing problems with the BBC’s governance is the lack of clarity of the roles of the Governors and the Executive. Presently, the Governors are ultimately responsible for the BBC’s budgeting and programming, although they are also meant to hold the BBC to account. This blurring of roles was highlighted in the Hutton case.

The Hutton Inquiry: The BBC Crisis

  Dr. David Kelly, the late UK government scientist, was interviewed privately by a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan in 2003. The interview was later quoted and used anonymously in a BBC radio programme, suggesting that Downing Street had “probably known” that the claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction had been exaggerated. After the programme was broadcast, the Office of Foreign Affairs approached BBC and demanded an apology. The Governors of the BBC met and agreed to support the BBC’s management and their decision to broadcast the claim. As the event developed, Kelly’s name was revealed to the public as the source of information and he was later called to give evidence at the Foreign Affairs Committee. A few days after the inquiry, Kelly was found dead near his house.
  It followed that the government ordered an inquiry into the incident. Lord Hutton was appointed to investigate Kelly’s death and the BBC’s allegation. The Hutton report confirmed that Kelly’s death was a suicide and that the allegation made by Andrew Gilligan on the BBC Today programme was unfounded. As a result, both the Chairman and the Director General of the BBC resigned immediately.

New BBC Charter and Agreement - the Answer?

  Following the Hutton Inquiry, there was great fear that the UK government would use the forthcoming review of the BBC Charter and Agreement to increase government’s control over the BBC. In fact, the opposite is true. The new Charter and Agreement clarifies the BBC’s purposes are to sustain citizenship and civil society, to promote education and learning, and to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence. Its programs should reflect UK ?the nation, its regions and communities. It should bring the world to the country and the UK to the world. Building a Digital Britain is an additional goal. But most importantly, the Charter and Agreement reaffirm the BBC’s independence from government as demonstrated by the re-structuring of the BBC governance.

New Governance Arrangements

  The BBC Board of Governors is replaced by a new BBC Trust that has no direct influence on the running of the corporation. The new governance arrangements separate the power of control between the BBC Trust and the BBC Executive. The new governance process is to protect the independence of BBC, making sure that its editorial autonomy is sustained. Under the new arrangements, the BBC Trust will act as the buffer between the government and the BBC management. The Executive will be responsible for running its budget and providing programming in accordance with agreed programme remits. The Trust will act in the interests of license fee payers and hold the BBC Executive to account on its budget and programming. The Trust will also be responsible for undertaking a ‘public value test’, taking account of the market impact of any potential new BBC service, or a significant change to an existing service.

General Lessons for PSB Governance

  Best international practice for the governance of public service broadcasters suggests that the role of the Supervisory Board should be governed by rules that are set out in a legal instrument which define clearly and precisely the competencies of the Board. The Board should not have any pre-broadcast powers over programming. The rules should also ensure the board to be free from any risk of political interference. The appointment and termination process of the Board members must be open and pluralistic. Members should collectively represent the interests of society in general. They must also be independent of the appointing body. No dismissal should be carried out except on terms set out in the rules. The appointment should avoid any financial or other conflicts of interests.
  In terms of funding settlements, there should always be consultation between the government and the PSB to determine the level of funding. Long term settlements from the government should be introduced to enable the PSB to have long-term planning. Funding must never be used to exert political pressure. To sustain the accountability of the PSB, there should be audited accounts, open meetings, consultations and an open complaints system. Reports and accounts should be published annually. The publication of measurable targets and key performance indicators should also be encouraged. These should be included in the annual report.
  In conclusion, the future of PSB is vulnerable to technological changes and political whims. Both threats can be managed by forethought and planning. However, it must be underpinned by a social and political understanding of the value of a popular and viable public service broadcaster.
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