Damian Green MP is is MP for Ashford, Chair of the One Nation Caucus and a member of the DCMS Select Committee.
There are enough immediate crises facing the new prime minister that it may be tempting to say that everything else must be set aside. If it’s not immediately crucial, especially to the cost of living, why do it now?
This may be particularly tempting about the Media Bill, part of which paves the way for the privatisation of Channel 4, which is a solution desperately in need of a problem. Controversial, not in the manifesto and ready to be eaten alive in the House of Lords, dropping Channel 4 privatisation would be a shrewd move by a new premier.
However, it would be very wrong to ditch the whole Bill. The rest of it contains crucial proposals which are vital to secure the future of distinctively British TV in a marketplace increasingly dominated by global online giants with little connection to the UK.
Public service broadcasters (PSBs), such as ITV and the BBC, make a significant contribution to the nation’s creative economy, culture and democracy, with content that is admired around the world. PSBs bring people and communities together for shared experiences and commission and broadcast distinctive British content, made all over the country, which reflects the UK’s diversity.
There is a pressing need for legislative reform. The legislation underpinning PSBs was last updated in 2003 – before streaming existed and when Netflix relied solely on sending DVDs through the post.
Audiences greatly value PSB content but as consumption moves online, the clear danger is that it disappears from view on global TV platforms, who sell prominence to the highest global bidder and also use their positions to extract substantial value out of the PSB system and hence out of our creative economy.
It can’t be right that British PSBs (and indeed licence fee payers) should subsidise Google, Amazon and Samsung. This is not a question of protecting a failing industry but rather ensuring that a successful one can continue to flourish.
PSB’s contribution to the British economy is vast. DCMS numbers show that the creative industries were worth £116billion to the UK in 2019 alone. Last year, PSB spend on first-run UK-originated content reached its highest level since 2017, at £2.6bn – significantly boosting the production sector, creating jobs and nurturing British talent all over the country.
Indeed, the PSB story of investment outside the booming TV and film sector in South East England is a really good one, with the TV ecology in the nations and regions of the UK underpinned by the PSBs, a key force in levelling up as the market pulls in the opposite direction. At the same time, the PSBs also underpin a creative economy which has encouraged massive investment in the UK from global companies such as Netflix, as well as finding and nurturing the stars of tomorrow – both on and off screen.
Great though the global streaming services are, their models are not designed to reflect life in the UK, whether that’s the national experience of the Pandemic, the effects of the war in Ukraine, or the memorable recent victory of the Lionesses.
That’s where PSBs also score for this country. As Ofcom’s annual Media Nations report shows, from drama to entertainment to factual and sport, PSBs are highly valued by viewers for delivering wide ranging programming for UK audiences. Today they remain the most trusted news brands – a vital tool against misinformation, providing reliable, accurate and impartial news coverage in a world of propaganda and misinformation online.
We must build on the national success story in TV; we can’t afford to be complacent. Of course, the PSBs need to offer attractive content in ways that audiences want to consume it, but there is plenty of evidence of that in iPlayer, All4 and the launch this autumn of the major new, free, streaming service ITVX.
It’s instructive that the Government and Ofcom have warned that PSB’s contribution is at risk due to rapid changes in technology, viewing habits, and the increasingly powerful role of global online gatekeepers who are moving at speed into TV. Increasingly, the public’s ability to easily find PSB content, and the PSBs’ ability to make a fair commercial return on their content investment, will be at the mercy of global technology giants.
The Government set out its vision for reform earlier this year, ahead of a Media Bill, in its Broadcasting White Paper, Up Next, and proposed a number of reforms around issues of TV platform prominence, inclusion, and fair value. These reforms have been welcomed by PSBs and will ensure that they are available and easy to find on connected TV platforms and included on fair commercial terms.
The time to act is now. The deadline for some PSBs, such as ITV and Channel 5, to apply for new licences for the next decade is April 2023. They need to know what their future PSB commitments (and corresponding benefits) will look like in a world where none of their competitors have PSB obligations, such as (in the case of ITV) to provide regional news.
The Government must find parliamentary time to introduce the Media Bill promptly this autumn to ensure that our PSBs can continue to serve the UK so effectively. They are a crucial part of our world-leading creative economy, bringing people together right across the nation regardless of ability to pay whilst supporting our culture, democracy and creative economy.
Safeguarding PSB investment in distinctive British content which audiences love is in all our interests, and certainly one that as Conservatives we should continue to champion.