DIGITAL ECONOMY BILL 1: Big Issues for Wales

Geraint Talfan Davies summarises the key parts of the government’s Digital Economy Bill that affect Wales

The official explanatory notes for the Westminster Government’s Digital Economy Bill makes plain the central approach to regulating broadcasting and media content in the UK. “There is no effect on the Welsh Ministers or the National Assembly of Wales and no other particular effect on Wales”. Neither is there anything in the Bill that would trigger the Sewel Convention in Scotland, whereby the UK Parliament does not legislate on devolved matters without the consent of the Scottish parliament. Well, that’s alright then. Or is it? All this does is reflect the non-devolved status of broadcasting and internet regulation, but it does not mean that there are not huge Welsh interests at stake.

The Bill, if it is passed before the next General Election, would add to Ofcom’s responsibilities the duty “to promote investment in electronic communications” and a duty “to promote investment that contributes to the fulfilment of specific public service objectives”. Public service content on the internet would loom as large in Ofcom’s concerns as public service television and radio has done in the past. In time, this presages a radically different shape for the services that Welsh viewers and browsers users will enjoy.

This will also impact on the way Ofcom conducts its five-yearly reviews of television. The Bill would extend this duty to consider also “the wider delivery of public service media content on other platforms, such as the internet and on-demand programme services, and review the extent to which such content contributes towards the fulfilment of the public service objectives”. It will also be obliged to report on “the manner in which those objectives have been fulfilled”, and set out Ofcom’s conclusions on “the current state of material in those services”.

Does this presage a much more detailed qualitative examination of the content of our public service providers, much as the IWA had suggested as a role for a Welsh Media Commission in Wales? [See English is a Welsh Language –Television’s Crisis in Wales, IWA, 2009].

The Bill also proposes some amendments to Channel 4’s statutory remit. C4 must “support new talent and innovation, support and stimulate well-informed debate, promote alternative views and perspectives and help to inspire change in people’s lives”. In doing so, it says that C4 must have regard to the desirability of working with cultural organizations, encouraging innovation in methods of content delivery and promoting access to and awareness of services provided in digital form.

Notable by its absence is any mention of spreading production across the UK, an issue on which Channel 4 has been notably more backward than the BBC. C4’s spend on production in Wales is nothing short of lamentable. The Bill could and should be amended to make the principle clear and unambiguous.  This would be preferable to leaving it to the vagaries of Ofcom decisions subject, as with ITV, to endless corporate lobbying.

The Bill introduces what the government calls “additional flexibility” into the licence processes for Channel 3 and Channel 5, allowing Ministers to alter the conditions for Channel 3 and Channel 5 licensees in response to market changes, and to change things back again if they see fit. Do they foresee a time when ITV’s business model will not look as bust as it does today? [See Digital Economy 2: No Licence for Wales? on this site.]

The Bill would provide Ofcom with the power to award contracts for regional and local news providers for ITV – the ‘independently financed consortia’ that Ofcom proposed in its review of public service broadcasting. This is a power that Ofcom does not currently have. The irony is that the Bill will not be passed in time to allow Ofcom to administer the award of the first pilot contracts. That will be done by the DCMS itself. It is fairly staggering that this eventuality was not foreseen long before now.

Details of how this will be dealt with by the DCMS are currently sparse, but since the potential players in Wales are already mobilizing, expect more news soon, perhaps before Ofcom’s planned conference on ‘the future of news’ in Cardiff on 11 December.

Since the Bill requires Ofcom to publish criteria for these news franchises, the DCMS will presumably be publishing some of their own. It will be interesting to see to what extent the criteria for a news service in an English region differ from those proposed for the service in Wales. The government has said that between £4m and £7m could be available in Wales to fund this news service, paid for through a 50p levy on phone lines.

The focus on the future of television and online in Wales has tended to push the radio debate to the sidelines. But Wales now needs to start paying much more attention to the future of radio. The Bill gives the Minister the power to designate a date for digital switchover in radio, albeit that few can see a time when digital audio coverage in Wales will reach anything like the current FM coverage. Ministers will be able to nominate different switchover dates for different services, creating the possibility of a two-tier system that, if normal rules apply, is not likely to put Wales at an advantage.

However, if DAB is the way forward, the flexibility inherent in the Bill may offer the prospect of a redrawing of the radio multiplex map in Wales into something more coherent that, potentially, could do more for the audience.

As for the services themselves, the Bill holds out the prospect of greater freedom for local radio stations to alter the nature of their services. At present they have to stick by agreed formats fixed at the point the licence is awarded. In future, they may be able to change the nature of the service as long as they promise that the programmes continue to be made in their licence area. However, the Bill would also clarify Ofcom’s power to permit local radio stations to make their programmes in centres outside the station’s  licence area.

There is more than enough here to keep Welsh policy makers and legislators busy.

Geraint Talfan Davies is a former Controller of BBC Wales and Chair of the IWA.

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