Support for public service broadcasting in the UK

NCW urges His Majesty’s Government to take steps to ensure that:

  • The BBC remains universally available across the UK with no extra payment, with sufficient funding to provide a full range of services to citizens and consumers in the UK.
  • The BBC and other Public Service Broadcasters remain available on DTT free of charge, without UK citizens having to pay for a broadband connection to access them.
  • Legislation is passed to secure prominence for Public Service Broadcasters and ensure fair carriage terms for them on streaming and online platforms.

We are living in unprecedented times and facing world-changing economic and ideological pressures which threaten to damage access for UK citizens to public service broadcasting (PSB) which is the mainstay of an informed democracy.

Our PSB is respected around the world and improves UK citizens’ quality of life by educating and informing our population and encouraging participation in our national conversation; as well as challenging discrimination and misinformation.

We are at a critical juncture where we need to challenge decision makers to ensure that every UK citizen will continue to benefit from access to broadcasting to inform them with trusted and impartial news and engage and entertain them with high quality content.

Although the Voice of the Listener & Viewer represents the interests of ALL citizens, we also consider that women stand to lose the most if we do not challenge decisions that are being made for largely commercial rather than public interest reasons. Specifically, we are concerned about the emergence of a public policy framework that would undermine free access to the means of receiving news and other kinds of content.

Statistics from the Women’s Budget Group in March 2019 show women are more likely to be living in poverty than men, with 25% of single women – often also primarily responsible for childcare – living in poverty

Nearly a quarter (23%) of single female pensioners are poor, the highest figure in 15 years; and almost half of single parents (90% of whom are women) are living in poverty.

Moreover, the situation appears to be worse for Black and Asian single-parent households. Research by the Runnymede Trust found that Black and Asian single-parent homes have experienced the biggest average drop in income (of between 19% and 20%) in the ten years between 2010 and 2020.

Access to information and entertainment of a high standard – freely available – are of importance to all but also, specifically, to those households managing on a very low income.


Proposer Speech – Professor Sylvia Harvey

We are living in unprecedented times and facing world-changing economic and ideological pressures which threaten to damage access for UK citizens to public service broadcasting which is – we believe – one of the key supports for an informed democracy.

Our public service broadcasting (or PSB for short) is respected around the world and contributes to UK citizens’ quality of life by educating, informing and entertaining while also enabling participation in the ‘national conversation’; as well as challenging discrimination and misinformation.

We are at a critical juncture where we need to challenge decision makers to ensure that every UK citizen will continue to benefit from access to PSB.

PSB is a key resource – for the UK population in general and for women in particular; arguably a feminist issue.

If the last three months has told us anything, it is that we need access to impartial and trusted news more than ever. Events in the Ukraine have reminded us that truth can be the first casualty of war, with a significant role played by the BBC World Service quite widely recognised both inside and outside the United Kingdom. The Queen’s State funeral was watched by a combined audience of some 28 million people across the PSBs (primarily BBC, ITV and Channel 4), demonstrating perhaps – in the wake of the EU Referendum – a relatively rare moment of national unity and promoting the existence of a peaceful ‘national conversation’. The extensive coverage of the Ukraine war along with some recognition of the experiences of millions of refugees demonstrated that the BBC continued to play a key role in the national conversation.

The 2022 NCW conference comes ahead of key announcements that we remain anxious to hear: the introduction of the Media Bill and the BBC Funding Review. It is under these proposed government changes to policy and legislation that we contextualise our proposals for a VLV resolution at this conference. The likely changes following the Media Bill will have profound effects on the way that UK citizens will be able to access PSB in the future.

There were many proposals in the White Paper that were positive and far-sighted and promised an update of a very out of date system – 19 years to be exact – before streaming existed and when Netflix relied solely on sending DVDs through the post.

But whilst some of the proposals are welcome such as regulating the streaming platforms and big tech, others are concerning, such as: rewriting the PSB purposes and potentially watering down the need to benefit citizens, allowing the PSBs greater flexibility when delivering their remits (and less regulation). Other proposals are deeply worrying – principally the discussion of alternative funding methods for the BBC and all this entails.

There is also a concern that the tone of the White Paper suggests that citizens interests are only considered where they coincide with the interests of industry rather than in their own right. PSB’s contribution to the British economy is vast. DCMS numbers show that the creative industries were worth £116 billion to the UK in 2019 alone (DCMS Report). 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 talent (Ofcom source).

The BBC is not the UK’s only PSB, but it is the largest of the publicly or privately owned companies with a PSB remit and therefore the stability of the fairly complex ecology rests with the BBC’s ability to continue to provide content and programming.

Research shows that in real terms BBC funding has declined by 25% since 2010. The BBC now faces a potential deficit of up to £5bn during the coming 6 years and is currently embarked upon a major programme of staff redundancies.  BBC services – in drama as well as in news – remain critical in today’s political and economic climate and should remain universally available to citizens across the UK, funded by everyone, for everyone to enjoy free at the point of use.

Choice is a word used a lot by government to justify proposals to change the way the licence fee is configured and collected. The universal licence fee payment is still the fairest way of ensuring that everyone gets access to accurate and quality news and content. Universality is absolutely critical if we are to have a fair system of payment.

We believe that a more progressive fee should be investigated with the intention of reducing costs for those on lower incomes.  The BBC funding model should also continue to be non-dependent on level of consumption of BBC services as this risks developing into a hybridised model of some free and some paid for content or a subscription model. A subscription-based payment for a national broadcaster (which is something that continues to be mooted as a solution) goes completely against the ideals of a modern democracy. Many households cannot afford subscriptions and should not have to pay for news.

We also believe it is essential that BBC services remain available to ALL UK citizens without having to pay for a broadband connection as 6% of UK households don’t have internet access, rising to 14% in lower socio-economic groups and 20% of those aged over 65.

We know that some 70% of households are able to access television services online. According to the Office of National Statistics there were some 28 million households in the UK in 2021.  Of these (according to Enders Analysis), there are still 8 million households who do not currently access content via the internet – either because they choose not to, or because they do not have or cannot afford good broadband connections.

We cannot disregard the needs of that proportion of the population that does not currently have the option of paid for online access. Some of these households are among the most vulnerable in society.

Digital Terrestrial Television (DDT for short) or Freeview accessed through the rooftop aerial is watched on around 18 million TV sets in the UK [BARB, 2020].

Spectrum – radio frequencies used for broadcasting – provides the infrastructure required by Freeview if it is to continue to operate. However, this method of access continues to be under threat because:

a) the allocation of spectrum is coming under increasing pressure from mobile phone companies sometimes aggressively seeking the use of more spectrum even where this might remove the last remaining frequencies available for TV use.

b) spectrum is owned and managed or allocated by governments and is financially valuable. It is possible that governments desperate for additional resources might auction spectrum and award this to the highest bidders. Although so far in the UK the ‘TV suitable spectrum’ has been retained for broadcasters. This could change, and the next key opportunity for changes in spectrum use will come at the World Radio Conference in 2023.

c) At present the availability of suitable spectrum for broadcasters is supported. And some technical advice has suggested that broadband providers do not yet have the capacity required to relay broadcast signals. But we must watch this space.

d) There are also some security concerns about an ‘Internet Protocol’ for television services. Some state actors have already experimented with malicious entry into existing online systems; and it is currently recognised that such high- level hacking into online systems makes these facilities – at present – potentially unsafe, especially during periods of national emergency.

In the case of Russia, we have seen how the security of broadband can be breached easily enabling transmission of fake news or by the prevention of transmission all together, or by the sabotage of key infrastructure such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline. DTT – TV that makes use of spectrum – prevents the risk of this happening at a time when such malicious interventions are a real possibility.

In conclusion: the PSB system and the BBC in particular offers us the opportunity for a collective vision of the ‘ties that bind us’ (as well as a recognition of the disparities that divide us) at a time when the United Kingdom is experiencing some turmoil and uncertainty.

Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) in this country in under threat.  Although a first read of the April White Paper on the future of Broadcasting in the UK appears to support the continuation of a healthy PSB system, reading between the lines the threats are there because of the challenges to the funding of the BBC, the renewal of the BBC charter in 2027, possible changes to future PSB remits and prosed changes to the television license fee. 

What is PSB?

In the UK a Public Service Broadcaster is one that is managed and regulated to be universally available, pays UK tax and is overseen by OFCOM as part of its operating license.  The government awards licenses to Public Service broadcasters to provide additional content over and above that provided by purely commercial broadcasters – content that informs and educates as well as entertains.  (Sound familiar – well it’s the values of the BBC!)  License remits cover programme mix (e.g. news and documentary as well as entertainment), source of content (e.g. requirements for regional and home grown content reflecting British lives), as well as guidelines on independence, diversity, impartiality and accuracy.  For example, currently 50% of BBC programmes must come from outside London and news must remain impartial.  The BBC is not the only provided of PSB content in the UK, ITV, C4 and C5 all have PSB requirements in their licenses, but to a lesser degree than BBC.

Why is freely available PSB important? 

A recent Zurich University study looked at the resilience of countries to online disinformation.   They discovered that countries with better and more PSB (such as those in Northern Europe) were most resilient ad had citizens who were better informed and knowledgeable about public affairs.  The USA, however, where PSB plays a very small part of the media output, was in a category of its own with a population susceptible to fake news and disinformation campaigns!  We know that in countries with state-controlled television citizens often do not receive balanced news – radio and television stations are the first target of any totalitarian regime.  A freely available PSB service is important to maintaining a democratic nation.

Seconder Speech – Jan Leventhall

It seems to me that many of the arguments for de-funding the BBC and changing PSB remits are based on politics and industrial imperatives – sometimes it seems that WE – the viewers get overlooked.  So, I want to concentrate on the viewer experience!

I want you all now to imagine it is around 6 years in the future – say 2028.  The new BBC Charter – introduced last year moved the BBC to a subscription only service which is much more costly than the old license fee.  Spectrum allowances mean there are no longer any free to air television services available – all television is now accessed via the internet. 

Let us visit two flats on a housing estate somewhere in London. The occupant of Flat A is an 80 year old, mobility restricted, lady.  She is often quite lonely these days as her disability means she can’t get out and about like she used to, but until last year she had the companionship of her trusted television – it was on all day and she was an avid consumer of news and current affairs, she particularly liked some of the BBC crime and historical dramas and her guilty pleasure was Naked Attraction on C4!  However, now the set in the corner is silent.  The problem is she can no longer afford to watch television.  Not only would she have to subscribe to a Channel or pay-TV platform (such as Sky or Virgin) – but on top of that she would have to pay for an internet connection.    Of course, there is still some radio but – well her hearing’s not what it used to be.  As a result, her mental capacity and health are declining from a lack of stimulation.

So – on to Flat B.  Here we find a young single mum with three children under the age of ten.  She is unemployed relying totally on benefits although she has got a newly subsidised internet connection, essential for any home with children these days.  Her problem is choice.  Which TV channel or platform should she subscribe to? Her oldest 9 year old girl wants the new Super Heroes Channel on Sky, her 6 year old son is desperate for Disney+ and as for the 3 year old toddler well they really enjoy CBeebies and CBBC. Mum herself quite fancies Netflix.  She also likes to keep up with the current affairs but none of the Video on Demand channels have news.  Also without the BBC the news really isn’t reliable any more – it all seems so biased depending on which channel you choose – and with it all coming via the internet it’s always possible that what you are seeing is fake manipulation – she still remembers that BBC series The Capture back in 2022 showing deep fake politicians used to manipulate public opinion.  She laughed about it at the time – but now…. Well everything is possible! 

OK – a rather dystopian future, possibly a bit exaggerated I agree, but in 10 years rather than 5 years who knows! 

What I hope this brings home is the need for free to air PBS – a wide range of programmes available through an aerial at no cost for everyone, whatever their income or situation.  Most of us will agree that in a democracy this is imperative. 

But why protect the BBC?

The BBC is important because it is the model for all good quality PSB providers. For what currently  costs the public just 43p per day, in 2021 the BBC provided :_- 9 national TV channels, 56 radio stations, BBC website & digital services, iPlayer, BBC Sounds, the World Service, five orchestras, three choirs, the BBC Big Band, sponsorship of The Proms and Glastonbury, 2 children’s channels, Young Musician of the Year, Cardiff Singer of the World, S4C, Local News partnerships and BBC Monitoring (a listening and viewing service of global media providing analysis to government and other commercial organisations)  They also run three commercial ventures such as BBC Studios.

All in all pretty good value for money

In The BBC: A people’s History David Hendy writes,

“If nuclear war begins the last voice we might hear before Armageddon is a Radio 4 announcer”

Let hope that never happens, but if it does let’s hope that the BBC is still there to make that announcement and that we can all hear it free to air!

Proposer: Professor Sylvia Harvey, Voice of the Listener & Viewer

Seconder: Jan Leventhall, NCWGB Management Committee

Submitted by: Professor Sylvia Harvey & Pip Eldridge, Voice of the Listener & Viewer

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