Ofcom mulls impartiality review

Broadcast regulator Ofcom is looking at the possibility of relaxing impartiality rules for small, more niche television services.

Speaking ahead of the announcement of a review into public-service broadcasting, Ofcom Scotland director Vicki Nash said the regulator was considering how appropriate it was that non-mainstream broadcasters should have to remain impartial in the context of an ‘increasingly divergent world with increasingly diverse opinions and increasing mobility throughout the world”.

The move would mean that television news and current affairs programmes – other than those with public-service remits, on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 or Five – could compete more with newspapers in terms of being free to take a stance and campaign on issues.

‘We are asking the question: how should the issue of impartiality be handled in a converging environment?’Nash said.

‘[Impartiality] is enshrined in the Communications Act, but I think it has perhaps resulted in a lot of stuff on television being kind of the same.

‘To what extent does it actually reflect the diversity of opinion that exists in society, and should there be a relaxation on impartiality?’Nash asked.

‘If you look at most news programmes on the BBC or ITV, there is a degree of sameness about it. They are carrying the same sorts of stories – just not necessarily in the same order.

‘To what extent therefore is the current regulatory arrangement actually impacting on the choice for viewers?

‘We wouldn’t necessarily allow it on the main PSB channels. We are saying that in a world where people can get access to regulated and unregulated content, there could be a measure of relaxation, provided you can still access some kind of kitemark PSB channels.”

Nash also said the regulator could ‘not give any commitment’when challenged by Evening Herald editor Charles McGhee over the reduction of spending in television news and current affairs in Scotland.

According to Ofcom’s Communications Market Report for the nations and regions, between 2001 and 2006, spending on TV current affairs in Scotland had reduced by 45 per cent. TV news spending fell by 27 per cent in the same period. This compares with 10 per cent and three per cent respectively in the rest of the UK.

Nash said:?’We are conducting our next review into public service broadcasting and clearly what we will be doing is looking again at the statistics and the economics and the audience appetite for different types of programmes.”

‘We need to be clear about what regulatory possibilities we have – they are mainly on the commercial channels and not necessarily on the BBC. We cannot control everything. Clearly news and current affairs is up there, with greater affection for these programmes in Scotland than other parts of the UK.”

On the subject of the internet, Nash said successful regulation relied as much on individual users as formal intervention, saying ‘Big Brother cannot always be watching”.

She highlighted the need for media literacy about web users, warning that ‘self-regulation will have to take over where formal regulation leaves off”.

Nash said: ‘If the content was originally broadcast, then clearly it is regulable. What is much more difficult is to regulate over sorts of content – so what needs to come into play is a system whereby viewers understand the reliable sources of information.”

She outlined her plans for the Scottish Parliamentary committee to engage in media literacy issues, particularly concerning the protection of children and vulnerable adults online.

‘At Westminster, there is an associate parliamentary group on media literacy and I’ve been talking to a few MSPs recently to see if they might be willing to set up a similar group.

‘This would give media literacy the weight of importance that it needs in an increasingly fragmented digital society.”

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