Dosh And The Digitals
An investigation into the regulators of British digital media
13th August 2002
Apparently there is no need for concern. All detrimental affects arising from the corporate ownership of public services will be prevented by.. .. The Regulators. Ofcom will soon become the watchdog of British digital media, overseeing ITV, radio, mobile phones and broadband internet. But what do the personalities behind this new super-regulator reveal about the bite behind the bark?
There are many who would justifiably conclude the conquest was already complete. Ally McBeal, Hollywood Vice, Frazier, The X Files, West Wing, ER, Friends, 24, Sex in the City, Buffy and South Park are but a small portion of the copious US product prime-timing our TV screens.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that the quantity of US product on British TV is currently strictly controlled by legislation; the full US deluge stemmed by government regulation.
The argument for this protectionism insists that, without regulation, the superiorly-financed US corporations would flood European screens and drown home grown programme-making. Diversity and regional representation, it is argued, would atrophy in the face of a US supplied homogeneity, and wed end up with a programme schedule filled with happy meals for the eyes.
However, a new bill drafted by the UK government proposes to remove the floodgates altogether; deregulating cross-media ownership, prising open programme schedules and allowing US corporations to own British ITV franchises for the first time. The draft Communications Bill will also create a new super regulator called Ofcom to oversee ITV, radio, telecommunications and broadband internet. It will, we are told, take a light touch approach to regulation, effectively meaning less regulation than ever.
However, until Ofcom assumes full command in 2003, the five regulatory bodies currently overseeing this huge media area will continue their roles. Given that the degree of regulation will decrease when they are replaced, their performance up to now is a significant indicator of what is to come. And the reality behind the scenes reveals serious cause for concern about the future of British broadcasting.
Regulators are set up by the government to protect the interests of the consumer in areas of public service and utility provision. The regulator set up to oversee independent television is the Independent Television Commission (ITC). Responsible for setting standards for ITV programme content, advertising and technical quality, the ITC has an expressed mission "to ensure that broadcasters operate in an environment which encourages innovation and widens viewer choice". Under current rules, the ITC monitors ITV output to ensure it fulfils all government regulations, including a required percentage of UK and EU made programmes in the broadcasting schedules.
According to the capitalist norm under which the regulator was set up, the ITC is also charged with fostering competition within the world of independent television in order to create "wider choices for the consumer". This means preventing monopoly and regulating the corporate dumbing-down of programme content.
However, SQUALL can reveal that the man appointed twice in succession as ITC chairman has been a persistant lobbiest against regulation, and a fervent advocate of monopoly control of ITV.
Sir Robin Biggam was appointed as ITC chairman in January 1997 by former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith. Exactly what Biggams credentials are as a guardian of quality televisual content and viewer choice is not clear. His CV is a list of heavily-weighted corporate directorships none of which relate to a his responsibilities as a media guardian. Trained as an accountant, Biggam initially worked with accountancy firm Peat, Marwick & Mitchell, later to become KPMG, the governments chief privatisation accountants. Up until 1981, he occupied management positions at ICI including spells working in the US. From 1986 he was Chief Executive of one the governments favourite PPP corporations, now known as Balfour Beatty plc. He was also deputy chairman of British Energy plc following privatisation of the nuclear industry in 1996, a post he held until June this year. He is currently a non-executive director both of Lloyds Abbey Life Group, and of the UKs largest arms manufacturer, BAe Systems.
His suitability as an impartial chairman of the ITC was questioned back in 1999 when the ITC closed down a Kurdish language satellite station broadcasting from the UK to Europe, Middle East and North Africa. Biggam insisted that MEDs empathy with the cause of Kurdish seperatism was tantamount to an incitement to violence. However, at the time of the ITCs decision to close the station, Biggams old company Balfour Beatty were negotiating with the Turkish government to build the Iliusu Dam which, had it been built, would of displaced 10,000 dissenting Kurds from their homes. His present company, BAe Systems, were also in the advance stages of an arms deal with the Turkish government. However, the apparent conflict of interest brought to the publics attention by Campaign Against the Arms Trade - didnt dissuade the current Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, from reappointing Biggam for a further five year term when his contract came up for renewal earlier this year.
Indeed Biggans record as ITC chairman is one clearly marked by an overtly corporate agenda. Despite talking up an ITC Charter for Nations and Regions - supposedly to "guarantee the contribution of a strong regional presence on our screens" - ITV franchises have imploded towards a monopoly during his reign.
At present, government regulation prevents any one company from owning all the ITV franchises. However, during his chairmanship Biggam has persistantly campaigned to remove this regulatory stipulation altogether. When Carlton TV acquired Central TV, and Grenada TV swallowed LWT in 1994, the express train to ITV monopoly was set in motion. Since then further acquisitions mean that between them the two companies now own 10 of the 16 ITV franchises in the UK, and 50 per cent of an 11th (GMTV). As if this wasnt contradictory enough for a regulator supposedly charged with maintaining competitive plurality, Biggam then firmly supported a proposed merger of Grenada and Carlton when the two companies asked the government for permission to become one. The deal, which would have seen a monopolistic ownership anti-pathetic to expressed notions of regional independence and representation, was only scuppered when the TV advertising market collapsed after Sept 11, and ITV Digital collapsed under the weight of a badly negotiated deal over football rights.
Carlton and Grenada are now far too weak to achieve monopoly but other US corporations have their eyes firmly on the prize. The draft Communications Bill proposes to remove both the regulation preventing US corporate ownership of any ITV company AND the regulation preventing one company from owning all ITV franchises. Disney Television are one of US corporations licking their lips in the wings.
Indeed, one man who is now a firm advocate of such deregulation is Chris Smith, Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. As Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in 1997, it was Smith who appointed Sir Robin Biggam as ITC chairman in the first place. The current Register of Members Interests reveals that six months after leaving his post as Culture Secretary, Chris Smith MP accepted a job as consultant to Disney Television. He now receives around £50,000 a year for his part in helping Disney TV penetrate the British broadcasting market.
A Joint Parliamentary Committee set up to scrutinise the Communications Bill and chaired by Lord Puttnam, was highly critical when it published its report last month. British TV needed protecting both from over-Americanisation and from corporate monopoly. The report also stressed the importance of "the promotion and maintenance in all media including newspapers, of a balanced and accurate presentation of news, the free expression of opinion and a clear differentiation between the two." Not a sentiment close to the heart of Chris Smith, however, who wrote a large article expressing support for deregulation in The Guardian in July. At the end of the article it stated: "Chris Smith is Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport 1997-2001." No mention of his lucrative consultancy contract with Disney Television. And this from a man who sits as a member of the Committee for Standards in Public Life.
In October 2001, Sir Robin Biggam joined a long list of companies and individuals quick to populate the political opportunities afforded by the terrorist action on the US. He insisted publicly that ITV deregulation should be hurried through immediately by emergency legislation. The events of Sept 11, he argued, had severely harmed advertising revenue and the only way to get money into ITV was to relax regulation and sell it off to the highest bidder regardless of origin.
"We cannot wait for new legislation and a new organisation to emerge," insisted an impatient Biggam, aware the draft Communications Bill was still nearly a year away. Sir Robin Biggam is paid £77,590 plus expenses a year by the taxpayer for a four day week as chairman of the ITC. He also sits on the advisory body of the Institute of Bioethics, whose chief sponsors include British American Tobacco, Nestle and his old firm Balfour Beatty.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee along with BECTU (the broadcasters union), PACT (the producers association), the Directors Guild and the National Consumer Council have all been extensively critical of the draft Communications Bill. And yet the Department of Culture, Media and Sport have responded by stating the provisions in the Communications Bill were not tentative proposals, they were decisions. The question immediately arose: Why set up a Parliamentary Committee to scrutinise a Bill if you are to totally dismiss its condemnatory findings? Whitehall whispers have attempted to slur Lord Putnams reputation in the press by suggesting he is just plain anti-American; an unconvincing retort given that Putnam was once head of Warner Bros.
Government determination to ignore strong dissent was further confirmed with the appointment of nu-Labour favourite, David Currie, as chairman of the mega media regulator-to-be, Ofcom.
David Currie ney Lord Currie of Marlyebone since 1993 - was a Labour peer before resigning his party membership to take up the £133,000-a-year post as Ofcom chairman last month. According to current Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell: "Every week 50 million people watch TV and listen to radio. Ofcom will champion their interests."
However, like Sir Robin Biggam, Currie is a money man rather than a media man. Between 1992-95 he sat on the Treasurys Panel of Independent Forecasters as one of the Chancellors so called wise men.
He is currently non-executive director of Abbey National, dean of the City Business School and worked at Ofgem (the gas regulator) prior to his Ofcom appointment. Having held visiting appointments at the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England, he became director of the Regulation Initiative at the London Business School, a corporate-sponsored think tank which organised conferences on the role of regulators in a corporate world. One of the Regulation Initiatives major corporate sponsors was Centrica, the private Gas supply company who Biggam was supposedly involved in regulating whilst at Ofgem. Other sponsors include Enron and BT, a telecommunications company he will supposedly regulate as Chairman of Ofcom. It is expected that Currie will be choosing the commissioners to sit alongside him as guardians of British independent television, radio and broadband internet this month. One of names considered a likely choice is David Edmunds, currently Director General at Oftel, the telecommunications regulator whose task will be subsumed by Ofcom. Once a managing director at the Nat West Group, Edmunds went on to become Chief Executive at the Housing Corporation. His privatisation credentials are extensive. As was also part of the government teams which oversaw the privatisation of Roll-Royce, British Steel and the Water Industry. And he headed the DTI team which commenced the privatisation of the Post Office. Edmunds has gone on record as a firm supporter of the creation of Ofcom and very much in favour of a relaxation of corporate regulation.
Indeed all indications suggest Ofcoms agenda will be one of big business as usual. The government has described Ofcoms future regulatory clout as one of light touch, meaning the corporate sector will be very lightly regulated, allowing monopolies to form under the guise of consolidation, and prizing open British broadcasting to anyone with enough money to assume command. Be it Rupert Murdoch or Disney TV. It is a paradox not lost on British programme-makers that the United States protects its own television channels from foreign take-over with vigorously enforced anti-trust regulation.
In the light of the operational history and the personality background of Britains media regulators, can they credibly be deemed trustworthy as guardians of broadcasting quality, creativity and regional representation? Or are they simply global market architects committed to the unfettered corporatisation of our television screens regardless of content consequence.
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