Media Bill Update - Localness At Risk

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MPs have reported their concerns about the Media Bill in the final report of the Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee. The Government is proposing that commercial radio in the UK can be deregulated, with only a minimal requirement to provide locally originated content. This will have a massive knock-on effect on local news, information and opportunities for democratic and cultural expression.

With the evisceration of BBC local radio in England, it looks like community radio will be the only platform that local people will have access to for dedicated local news and information. MPs on the committee have ignored these concerns and are oblivious to the needs of local communities. Without proper safeguards to protect local production and origination of all content, this is a regressive step which will lead to increased homogenisation and centralisation of content.

The media landscape has transformed significantly over the past 20 years. Previously dominated by analogue TV and scheduled broadcasts, it now sees global platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ competing with UK broadcasters. Despite these changes, Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) remain central to the UK’s media ecosystem, offering content that enriches culture, society, and democracy.

 The draft Media Bill aims to ensure PSBs can navigate this evolving landscape and that on-demand content meets the same standards as traditional broadcasts. The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee of MPs has published their concerns about simplifying the public service remit, such as the role of Channel Four and the BBC, with specific concern about the potential removal of requirements for PSBs to provide content in specific genres. They believe that removing genres might lead to a significant reduction in content variety.

The report supports the restriction of broadcast rights of Listed Events to PSBs, ensuring that significant sporting events remain accessible to all. The Committee suggests closing a loophole that allows unregulated streaming services to put these events behind paywalls. The prominence given to PSBs on modern devices is discussed, with a recommendation to increase their visibility from “appropriate” to “significant” on Electronic Programme Guides.

The report also delves into Channel 4’s “sustainability clause” and the implications of removing its publisher-broadcaster model. The Committee is concerned about the potential negative impact on the independent production sector.

The Government’s proposal to require only the largest on-demand providers to follow the new Video-on-Demand Code is questioned. The Committee believes the Code should apply universally.

The report emphasises the need for future-proofing the legislation, ensuring it remains relevant as the media landscape continues to evolve. However, they call for more safeguards and increased scrutiny.

Lastly, the removal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 is discussed, highlighting the importance of maintaining high press standards.

The report underscores the challenges and opportunities presented by the rapidly changing media environment and the need for legislation that reflects current realities while safeguarding the interests of audiences.

The committee reported earlier in the summer in relation to radio, noting that analogue (AM/FM) commercial radio services in the UK have historically been regulated under a licensing framework developed in the 1990s. This framework required commercial local radio stations to broadcast specific genres of content, target specific age groups, and produce a certain number of programmes from a studio within the station’s coverage area.

With the evolution of the industry, there has been a shift from individually licensed local stations to national networks, such as Heart FM, which provide local services. The draft Media Bill aims to deregulate these requirements, focusing on a narrower duty of providing local news and information.

The draft Bill proposes to narrow Ofcom’s duties around ‘localness’ to focus primarily on ensuring the availability of local news and information, such as traffic updates, weather reports, or local events. This change reflects the value audiences place on local news from their radio stations, especially since commercial radio reaches audiences that other news providers might not.

The Bill does not mandate stations to employ journalists directly. Instead, a station could collaborate with a newspaper, agency, or freelance journalist who gathers news in the local area.

The Government had previously committed to providing clarity on what constitutes ‘local news’. While Ofcom appreciated the draft Bill’s removal of the need to regulate music formats and the location of content production, it called for clearer guidance on its responsibility to enforce the provision of locally-gathered news.

The Committee emphasised the importance of local news and information, recognising it as a primary reason many individuals tune into local radio. They expressed concerns about the perceived lack of clarity in Ofcom’s responsibilities and recommended that the Government provide Ofcom with clearer guidance regarding the enforcement of the obligation on local radio to provide locally-gathered news.

This report underscores the significance of ‘localness’ in radio, especially in the context of news and information. The Committee’s recommendations highlight the need for clarity and guidance in ensuring that local radio stations continue to serve their communities effectively.

Based on the report and the broader context of local content production for radio, several concerns might arise if radio networks are not mandated to produce and support the development of local content:

  • Loss of Local Identity and Culture: One of the primary concerns is that without a focus on local content, radio stations might lose their unique local identity. Local radio has traditionally played a role in reflecting and shaping local cultures, values, and events. Without local content, this connection could weaken, leading to a homogenisation of content across regions.
  • Economic Implications: Local content often provides opportunities for local artists, journalists, and other professionals. If radio networks shift away from local content, it could have economic implications for these local professionals, potentially leading to job losses or reduced opportunities in local media sectors.
  • Reduced Diversity of Voices: Local content ensures a diversity of voices, opinions, and stories are heard. Without it, there’s a risk that only mainstream or nationally popular narratives will dominate, side lining local perspectives and issues.
  • Less Relevant News and Information: Local radio has been a trusted source for local news and updates. If the emphasis on local content diminishes, communities might not receive timely or relevant information about local events, emergencies, traffic updates, or other pertinent issues.
  • Commercialisation Over Community: Without a mandate to produce local content, there’s a concern that commercial interests might take precedence. Radio stations might prioritise content that has broader commercial appeal over content that serves the local community’s interests.
  • Potential for Misinformation: Local journalists and content creators have a deep understanding of their communities. If content production shifts away from these local experts, there’s a risk of inaccuracies or misunderstandings about local issues, leading to potential misinformation.
  • Loss of Trust: Local communities trust their local radio stations because they understand and represent local interests. A shift away from local content might erode this trust, as listeners might feel the station no longer represents their interests or understands their concerns.
  • Impact on Emerging Artists: Local radio has traditionally been a platform for emerging local artists to gain exposure. Without a focus on local content, these artists might find it challenging to get their initial break or recognition.

The production and support of local content on local radio are crucial for maintaining a connection with local communities, ensuring diversity of voices, and providing relevant news and information. Any shift away from this could have significant cultural, economic, and social implications.