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United Kingdom/ 4.2 Specific policy issues and recent debates  

4.2.6 Media pluralism and content diversity

The UK Government believes that programming should appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests, and to people of different ages and backgrounds. This is reflected in the current regulatory arrangements.

The BBC's Royal Charter and its agreement with the government include obligations to provide a properly balanced service consisting of a wide range of subject matter and to serve the tastes and needs of different audiences. There are five analogue terrestrial channels - BBC1, BBC 2, ITV 1, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Under the terms of current legislation, ITV and Channel 5 are required to provide a range of high quality and diverse programming. Channel 4 has a statutory duty to provide a broad range of high quality and diverse programming which, among other requirements, demonstrates innovation in programme content, appeals to the interests of a culturally diverse society and includes educational programmes.

Under the 1990 and the 1996 Broadcasting Acts, ITV 1, Channel 4, Channel 5, national radio licence holders and digital terrestrial programme licence holders are also required to promote equality of opportunity in employment between men and women and between persons of different racial groups. Within this framework, decisions about programme content and presentation are a matter for the regulators and the broadcasters themselves. They have set out detailed requirements in the programme code of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and the BBC's Producer Guidelines, and these cover the specific issue of the portrayal of ethnic minorities in programming.

The Communications Act 2003 established Ofcom as the independent media regulatory body, replacing five prior regulators. The work of Ofcom and the Communications Act were intended to ensure that commercial television and radio, telecommunications networks and wireless and satellite services operate, compete and develop in the greater public interest. Ofcom also had a number of powers in relation to BBC television and radio and advised the Secretary of State on proposed newspaper mergers. The Act requires Ofcom to carry out regular reviews of the fulfilment of the public service television remit set out in the Act and its first such review was completed in 2005. However, the new government has indicated Ofcom will lose its powers to review public service broadcasting.

A new BBC Charter and Agreement took effect on 1 January 2007, following a comprehensive review of the Corporation's role, functions and structure. Major changes have been made to the BBC's governance arrangements, involving the creation of a new, more transparent and accountable BBC Trust to oversee the Corporation, with ultimate responsibility for the licence fee and for ensuring that the BBC fulfils its public purposes. Six new purposes for the BBC have been set out in the new Charter (until the next renewal, due 31 December 2016):

  • sustaining citizenship and civil society - increasing understanding through news and current affairs;
  • education and learning - stimulating interest in a range of subjects via accessible learning materials;
  • creativity and culture - enriching the cultural life of the UK, promoting interest, engagement and participation in cultural activity among new audiences;
  • representation of nations, regions and communities - reflecting and strengthening cultural identities and, on occasion, bringing audiences from across the UK together for shared experiences;
  • bringing the world to the UK and the UK to the world - making audiences aware of international issues and the different viewpoints and cultures of people living outside the UK; and
  • building digital Britain - supporting UK audiences through digital switchover

The new BBC Charter also announced a six-year licence fee settlement, providing for annual nominal increases in the licence fee, but the new UK Government has indicated there will be no increase in the TV licence fee for three years from 2011.

Under the Communications Act, the government has been able to refer any attempt to extend cross-media ownership to Ofcom to ensure that it is not likely to reduce the plurality of the UK media. Based on Ofcom's conclusions, the Competition Commission can assess whether or not the bid should be allowed to proceed. Some concern has been expressed about attempts by the global media giant, News International (which already owns several UK newspapers and just under 40% of BSkyB pay TV) to extend its media interests in Britain further by acquiring 100% of BSkyB. There are anxieties that if the moves are not resisted, News International will control half of the UK's TV and half its newspaper revenues, and in doing so have the potential to adversely influence democratic choice. However, Ofcom is to lose its powers on media ownership rules.

The regulation of broadcasting is a UK Government matter, but there is strong representation of the UK's nations and each has a substantial production base. While individual commissioning decisions are the responsibility of broadcasters, the Communications Act 2003 requires Ofcom to set quotas for production outside London.

From this perspective, Scottish Ministers recognise the importance of the role of broadcasting in providing access to the diversity of Scotland's cultures and creative achievements. They consider it vital that greater production and commissioning powers are established within Scotland to achieve a more accurate reflection of Scottish culture nationally, within the UK and internationally. The Screen Industries Summit Group for Scotland (SISG) is a high level strategic "think tank" appointed by Ministers to make recommendations about key actions and levers to achieve growth and sustainability for the screen industries in Scotland.

Northern Ireland Screen ( the former Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission) believes that the historic exposure of negative images through film, television and print media have been the single largest contributor to the perception of problems that face Northern Ireland. It feels that sustained film and television exposure of Northern Ireland, in all its facets and cultures, offers a major opportunity to alter this negative perception, build confidence and develop the identity of Northern Ireland. In this connection, it is committed to developing Northern Ireland's resident talent so that it can expose Northern Ireland's diverse cultures on an international stage.

Chapter published: 15-04-2011

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