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“There was 57 channels and nothing on,” Bruce Springsteen famously lamented in a song released in the early 1990s. Now, the number of television stations would be closer to 570.
But in Britain regulation has not kept pace with the growth of outlets. The way broadcast media in particular is regulated feels hopelessly out of date. Changing this could improve the level of public discourse considerably.
Some would argue that in the age of fake news what we need is more rules, more regulation. Clear the partisan hacks from our screens, make sure debates are fair and balanced, and so on. I largely think the opposite is true. We need to reduce the regulatory burden, putting the emphasis on accuracy, not balance.
Section 5 of Ofcom’s broadcast code deals with both accuracy and impartiality. Among other things, it states that “due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy must be preserved on the part of any person providing a service”. It also says that “all expressions of the views and opinions of the person providing the service on matters of political and industrial controversy,” must be excluded from broadcast.
This leads to a situation where TV debates far too often feature crude characterisations of complex arguments. Participants have a role to play, an argument to put forward, and it does not leave much space for nuance. This is bad enough, but it also means that those whose views are not backed up with evidence often end up getting air time just to balance things out. There are some things that are true and some thing that are not, yet this gets lost in the way broadcasters currently have to present the arguments.
Producers diligently book guests and try and put together these balanced discussions, but members of the public still cry foul and assume there is some kind of conspiracy at play. So why not get everything out into the open? Allow people to start a right-wing TV channel, and see what happens – people themselves can decide what kind of television they want to watch. I’ve long thought that a left-wing equivalent would emerge pretty soon after. Viewers would create the balance naturally.
People are watching highly partisan content on YouTube all the time already. Some YouTube channels can reach as many, if not more, people than mainstream broadcast outlets. However, they have considerably fewer responsibilities. People are heading into this unregulated, fake news infested landscape because they are frustrated with the rigid, meaningless approach often found on TV news channels. Those channels need a shake up to win the viewers back.
It is important though that these moves do not encourage deeper polarisation. The proliferation of media echo chambers, whereby people never hear a view different to their own, are a serious issue. In the US, you can watch a story covered on the same day but by different channels and feel like you are watching two different worlds. Ofcom, although the body surely needs a revamp, would have an essential role in insisting on accuracy and making sure we do not disappear into some Fox News hellscape.
The BBC has an important part to play too. I am personally rather pro-BBC, and pro-license fee. I think it provides excellent value for money. I appreciate some do not, but that is a separate discussion. While we have the BBC in its current guise it must maintain its neutrality. If we have that, it matters far less if other broadcasters take a more opinionated approach.
One outlet who I think is managing to deal with all this quite well is LBC. The radio station’s presenters do not pretend that they do not hold an opinion, but over time a wide range of views is heard from both listeners and presenters. The channel is home to both James O’Brien and Iain Dale, Maajid Nawaz and Nigel Farage. TV stations could do something similar.
Another area of media that needs an overhaul is sports rights. In the US, it is possible to subscribe to a streaming service for the sports that you want to watch, all for a fairly reasonable price. In this country, major sports right, notably Premier League football, are sold to broadcasters in blocks for a very high sum. Great for players’ and managers’ pay packets, less great for fans who have to fork out huge amounts of money if they cannot make it to games.
We should change all this, and give people the chance to purchase every Premier League game via a smart TV app and online. As a compromise, you could even apply blackouts, as they do with baseball in America, so games being shown on the major sports channels cannot be viewed via the service. Given how rife illegal streaming is nowadays, this would surely be an improvement for fans and broadcasters alike.
When you think about making Britain better, media regulation might not be the obvious place to start. However, by updating media rules so that they are fit for the 21st century we could raise public discourse and even put some money back in people’s pockets.