Culture, Media and Sport Committee issues report on draft Media Bill

September 28, 2023

The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has issued its report on the draft Media Bill, following an inquiry. It highlights that it is twenty years since the last significant piece of media legislation was passed, which was before streaming services and widespread internet access and TV was almost entirely analogue and broadcasters decided when their programmes could be watched.

The Committee says that global players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ compete with UK broadcasters for viewers. Audiences are increasingly moving away from linear broadcasting to watching TV on-demand via smart TVs and streaming sticks. However, the Committee also points out that not everything has changes: Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) continue to sit at the heart of the UK’s media ecosystem, but this is against a backdrop of changing audience habits and rapid technological change, and they are held to a public service remit written twenty years ago.

It is within this context that the UK government has published its draft Media Bill, designed to enable PSBs to thrive as well as aiming to ensure that on-demand content is held to the same standards as broadcast content. The Committee has examined the draft legislation to consider its effectiveness and proportionality, as well as whether it delivers for audiences.

It published its interim report on radio earlier in the year and has now published its final report, which considers the rest of the Bill. It considers the government’s case for simplifying the public service remit and, especially for removing the requirement for PSBs to provide content in particular genres. Some of these genres, such as religion and other beliefs, are not sustainable commercially and the Committee is concerned that removing such requirements will lead to a considerable reduction in content. Notwithstanding the government’s and broadcaster’s views that the current regime is too complicated, it considers that removing genres is a step too far. It also wants audiences to have greater confidence that the flexibility of the new remit will not be accompanied by a decline in standards, and so recommends that the Bill should lower the threshold at which Ofcom can intervene if it considers that a PSB is not fulfilling its remit.

The report explores the case for restricting the broadcast rights of Listed Events to PSBs. Given the aims of the regime, to ensure that sporting events of national importance can be watched by everyone for free, it supports the government’s position. However, it believes that the Bill does not go far enough. It recommends that the government should close the streaming loophole allowing an unregulated TV streaming service to buy the rights for a listed event and put them behind a paywall, and it should ensure that the legislation can be extended in the future to include digital rights.

The Committee has also examined what level of prominence smart TVs, firesticks and set-top boxes should be required to give PSBs. The current position, that PSBs are given “appropriate” prominence on Electronic Programme Guides, has determined that they have the top spots. However, this does not work in the advanced user interfaces of today and so it recommends that the threshold for PSB prominence should be raised to “significant”. The tech industry told the inquiry that there are technological challenges regarding giving PSBs regional prominence. However, given the size of the revenues of those companies likely to be in scope of the legislation, the Committee does not consider this to be a disproportionate or unreasonable requirement. (The government has recently launched a consultation on electronic programme guides).

It also considered the Bill’s so-called “sustainability clause” for Channel 4 and the extent to which it adds to directors’ existing obligations. It recommends that the government ensures that the new clause is compatible with the broadcaster’s existing legal framework. It also reviewed the Bill’s removal of Channel 4’s publisher-broadcaster model and its implications for the independent production sector. It does not believe that reducing commercial opportunities for independent producers to improve those for a national broadcaster is an effective way of ensuring the future sustainability of the industry. It looks forward to hearing what mitigations the government intents to put in place to ensure that this does not happen.

The Committee also considered the government’s case for requiring only the largest on-demand providers to abide by the new Video-on-Demand Code and concluded that it does not meet the government’s aim of giving audiences confidence that all content, however they choose to consume it, is subject to the same regulations. As a result, it recommends that the new Code applies to all services.

The Committee also reviewed the powers the Bill gives the government to amend the legislation in the future. According to the Committee, the legislation should be future-proofed. However, in some cases, it considered that there are not sufficient safeguards in place and calls for more Parliamentary scrutiny or input from Ofcom.

Finally, it examined the evidence it received regarding the removal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. This provision would, if commenced, require news publishers to pay the costs of any court judgement if they were not a member of an approved regulator, regardless of the outcome. The Committee believes that there can be no room for complacency regarding press standards and will continue to scrutinise the work of the media industry and hold the press accountable for its reporting.

The government now has two months to respond to the report.