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30 March 2013

Bigger Than Leveson?

I have long been an advocate for a rethink of the rules governing commercial radio news.

A year ago I suggested that it was time to relax regulation in order to free listeners from an insipid, unchallenging approach to news in the independent radio sector. Now it seems the idea is being taken up, however obliquely, by the most unlikely champions for change.

I'm talking about the House of Lords.

I've always had huge respect for the crusties on the red benches. That much distilled political guile from former prime ministers and cabinet members, bolstered by the often eccentric talents of experts in dozens of specialist fields, can spring a surprise or two on the posturing public schoolboys playing to the electronic gallery in the directly-elected chamber down the corridor.

Anyway, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications has just published its second report on media convergence. The Committee has a wide-ranging remit "to consider the media and the creative industries".

This latest report has involved a lot of head-scratching about the impact of t'interweb.

Much of it is pretty standard stuff. The summary states that the Committee believes:
"forthcoming legislation must be drafted in such a way as to enable flexibility to adapt to an ever changing media environment. It is our view that new technologies and behaviours are evolving more quickly than regulatory protections {..} It would be reckless to jettison the current regulatory arrangements which have served us so well; but equally, it would be complacent for the Government and Ofcom not to get ahead of the curve."
So far so meh. But hidden away in paragraph 119 of the document is this bombshell:
119.  As part of a proposed co-regulatory model for TV and TV-like content providers, Ofcom and the Government should consider, in consultation with the future press regulator, the implications of incorporating regulation of all non-PSB news and current affairs content into its remit, and removal of the impartiality requirement from those providers.
Read that again. They're talking about the removal of the impartiality requirement in broadcast news for all non public service providers. In case there's any ambiguity, the implications of this are made clear three pars later:
122.  In establishing a co-regulator for TV and TV-like content providers, Ofcom should investigate the option of non-PSB providers of news services, such as Sky News, being invited to comply with the Broadcasting Code (suitably amended for their environment if TV-like) in return for some form of public recognition or kitemark.
Their Lordshops explicitly envisage a situation in which Sky News (as an example) could be free to opt out of current broadcast impartiality obligations, although they also hold out the option of such providers remaining under the tougher conditions of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code in return for some kind of badging to indicate that they've done so.

What this means for radio is unclear.

Radio matters so little to our politicians as a class that in their public comments TV and video routinely embrace radio and audio in the manner that my old English teacher would indicate that 'the male embraces the female'. So we can probably assume that the same rules would apply for 'non public service' radio.

Now that definition requires a bit of clarification, because back in the day of the IBA and the Radio Authority old-skool ILR was very definitely 'public service'. Can the same be said of today's local and regional services? Or of DAB-only services? Or those providers the Lords Committee would probably define as 'radio-like' on the internet?

But let's say for a moment that commercial radio is deemed 'non-public-service' in today's real world environment.

If that is the case these Lords' recommendations, if adopted into government policy, could open the way for the type of deregulated, opinionated, interesting radio news and speech I proposed in my earlier article.

It's clear that commercial radio can never win an audience for news by trying to out-BBC the BBC at what it does best. That battle was never a fair fight, given the resources of the state broadcaster, and it was lost a long time ago.

Old style ILR in the seventies and eighties managed to bring news to local audiences in a friendly, engaging and non-authoritarian way at a time when the Beeb was still pretty buttoned up; but Auntie has learned that lesson, and indeed now employs a lot of former commercial radio people from that generation who understand it best.

Those independent radio operators who invested in local news services until very recently, such as Real Radio, showed what properly resourced commercial news teams can do, and their achievements  were recognised yet again in last week's IRN Awards. However it seems unlikely teams of that scale will survive whatever future awaits "Real and Smooth"

I strongly believe there can be a future for a different kind of commercial radio news.

Freed from the rigid 'impartiality' rules which were entirely appropriate in an analogue era, but which are an anachronism in the digital age I believe campaigning, raucous, argumentative news and speech output based on local events and current affairs can win a new audience.

Where's my evidence?

The most talked about political interview of the year so far has been Eddie Mair's 'nasty piece of work' demolition of Boris Johnson.

It was a compelling duel between an outstanding broadcaster and a determinedly populist politician and yes it was on the BBC.

I doubt we'll be treated to another one quite like that for quite a while. There's been plenty of hand-wringing about the style, and incoming DG Tony Hall won't want to pick a fight with the government on his first day. Caution will no doubt be the guiding principle at New Broadcasting House for a bit.

But imagine that kind of approach to a commercial radio discussion, with local MPs, on the Bedroom Tax ... on the row erupting this Easter weekend over children's heart surgery in Leeds ... or a no holds barred grilling of an EDL apologist holding a rally in an ethnically-diverse city.

There would of course be no compulsion on commercial radio to follow such a route. Stations could opt to go instead for a prefect's badge and be "just as impartial as we've always been".

For now, I'll watch and await the Lords' deliberations with interest. I'll be keen to see who speaks up for the kind of freedoms I've outlined when the Committee calls industry types to give evidence.

It could mark the start of a revolution in choice for radio news audiences, and that can only be a good thing.

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