Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Adventures in Consultation Land

The government has asked for responses to its white paper Digital Britain by September 22. I urge all my dozens of readers to go here and make their voices heard. The report authors insist that while Ofcom, the BBC and Channel 4 are all important, they want to hear from members of the public. I am not sure if they actually expect to hear from us, so it would nice to surprise them.

It would be particularly interesting to see what they say about attitudes revealed in the answers to question 4, given its farcical structure.

1. Do you agree that securing plural sources of impartial news for the Nations, locally and in the regions should be a key priority?



The existing mix of private and state institutions is demonstrably failing to provide accurate, timely, publicly relevant and impartial news. This failure has played out at the local, regional and national level. There is now a growing crisis of plausibility in the news media and it is vital that the review of Digital Britain addresses this.

The proposals in Digital Britain should be seen as a starting point for a period of public debate as to the institutional structure of news-gathering in Britain and the need for wide-ranging reform. Particular attention should be paid to the need for democratic control of the commissioning process in journalism. Where public subsidy makes investigative journalism possible, the citizen body should have the right to decide what forms of investigation serve its interests.

2. Do you agree that sustainable, impartial news in the Nations, locally and in the regions is likely to require some top-up public funding?



Clearly the market cannot be left to provide news unaided. Public money will be needed. The crucial question concerns who controls this money. Do we leave it to bureaucrats, or do we ensure that the public controls the uses to which its own money is put?

3. Do you agree that the Television Licence Fee should be used to support impartial news in the Nations, locally and in the regions in addition to BBC services?



The TV licence fee is a natural source for top up funding. There is also an argument for imposing a levy on highly profitable companies that benefit from the use of public resources. I would be particularly keen to see News International subject to a levy, given its imaginative approach to the country's tax laws and the longstanding contempt that its owners and managers have shown to common decency.

4. Do you agree that any funding within a contained contestable element of the Television Licence Fee not required for impartial news should potentially be available to fund other forms of essential public service content, or should such funding be limited to news?



This is a trick question, isn't it? If I am answering the first question then the answer is yes, if the second the answer is no. How many of your respondents have spotted this? How have you addressed the question's ambiguity in your work on the consultation?

The money should be used to support news-gathering and the creation of civic content - that is, it should be made available to journalists, researchers and citizens who are able to persuade their fellow citizens of the merits of the projects they wish to work on. It should be up to the citizen body to decide on the kinds of content it wants.

5. Are there alternative funding mechanisms that you believe would deliver the previous objectives more effectively?


Yes [sort of]

As said above, a levy of communications companies should be considered. But given that some money previously controlled by the BBC seems to be available, we should start with that and move on to industry levies as the public realizes how much fun it is to control the investigative infrastructure.

6. Do you agree with the proposal to set a maximum percentage of Television Licence Fee revenue which could be set aside as a contained contestable element?



There is no point going hog wild at this stage. The BBC produces a great deal that the public value and it should be kept as a strongly financed state broadcaster. Money can be found for other sources for further expansion of the democratic media.

Besides, £126 million per year is quite a lot to be going on with, especially if it is administered through public commissioning and not frittered away on management salaries, consultancy fees and various other boondoggles.

7. Do you agree that amending the BBC Agreement could provide the necessary protection to the BBC's future funding and independence?



I have put yes, because I have to answer something here, but the honest answer is that I don't know.

8. Do you agree that the use of any contained contestable element within the Television Licence Fee should be restricted to the public purposes set out in the BBC Charter?



The uses made of the contestable element should be determined by the relevant publics. The BBC has not proved adequate to serving the public interest in crucial respects and its charter cannot be allowed to preempt the actions of the public.


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