Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

25 September 2008

A TV Of Nations and Regions

The media and telecoms regulator Ofcom today published the second phase of its Public Service Broadcasting Review. This looks at a number of alternative new funding models for public-service TV broadcasting in the era following the digital switch-over and beyond. The report questions some of the assumptions behind PSB funding in the present and explores different combinations of public and commercial funding for such services, and models of competition to obtain such funding and broadcasting licences.

One assumption that is not challenged in the report – or at least, its Executive Summary – is that there is both strong consumer demand and a public-service obligation to provide ‘nations and regions’ programming, both news and non-news. The phrase crops up all over the eight-page summary, particularly in relation to two of the proposed new models for ITV services and funding, e.g.:

  • The ‘enhanced Evolution model’: “ITV1 could become a network of nations-based licences, or a single UK licence, with obligations only for UK origination, UK and international news, and potentially news for the devolved nations and the English regions”.
  • The ‘refined BBC / Channel 4 model’: “Channel 3 licensees would have no ongoing public service benefits or obligations, but could compete for funding to provide nations and regions news,
    alongside others”.

Then, under the rubric “Provision of news and information for the devolved nations is an essential
requirement for any future model, and is likely to need replacement funding”, a number of options for securing this laudable aim are mapped out, which include:

  • “Provide new public funding for Channel 3 licensees in the nations and regions;
  • Introduce competitive funding for services in the nations and regions to enable
    other providers to bid, potentially enabling the creation of cross-media services in
    Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; or
  • Fund the creation of dedicated channels for the devolved nations, such as that
    proposed by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.”

One suspects that the demand for ‘nations’ services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland might be somewhat greater than demand for services focused on the (English) regions! Perhaps they should have consulted on the question of whether broadcasters felt there would be demand for a channel or services dedicated to the English nation. One suspects that the commercial potential for such a service, particularly if it was based on a public-service remit, would be quite high. Maybe it’s just the political will to provide public funding for a national English TV service that is lacking!

The absence of real demand for [English] regional programming seems reflected in the reports main proposals for ITV:

  • “retained nations and regions news, but a modest reduction in the minimum
    requirement for news minutage, reflecting removal of some daytime bulletins;
  • reduced minimum requirements for nations and regions non-news programming,
    to 15 minutes in England and from 3 to 1.5 hours in Wales, Scotland and
    Northern Ireland”.

For the avoidance of doubt, that’s 15 minutes of non-news factual programming for the English regions per week, as the more detailed discussion of this proposal in the body of the report makes clear: “in England, the requirement for a quota for ‘other’ non-news programmes in the English regions to be met through an average 15 minutes per week of current affairs and other factual elements from 2009, which may be delivered within news slots”. That’s 15 minutes for each of the English regions, compared with 1.5 hours for the ‘nations’ of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So clearly, they’re not anticipating much interest in this regional fare! However, if there were quality programming dealing with national English stories – political, social and cultural – I’m sure the broadcasters would have a job to limit it to the 1.5 hours allotted to the smaller nations! But they wouldn’t want so much attention to be drawn to the failings (or absence) of English governance, the economic and social problems of our cities and rural areas, or the decline of so many local and national traditions, would they?

So it seems as though the regional model is all we in England are going to be offered, even to the extent that Ofcom has given its approval to a rationalisation of ITV’s English ‘regional’ news desks from 17 to nine: neatly mapping on to the nine regions the government has divided England up into through its unelected Regional Assemblies and Ministers for the Regions – apart from poor old Borders TV, which does now look as though it will be merged with Tyne Tees: welcome to England, chaps!

Ofcom seems unable to think outside the nations and regions TV box; or perhaps it’s just prevented or intimidated from doing so by its political masters. The nations and regions model of broadcasting – and the nations and regions model for Britain it rests on – is based on a conflation of England with Britain, the political rationale for which is well known: to deny nation status to England but not to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and so to legitimise and perpetuate the sovereignty and domination of the unrepresentative UK parliament over English affairs, thereby withholding from English people the democratic choices and national self-determination accorded to the devolved ‘nations’. Ofcom can’t get beyond this rigid, pre-imposed model for the UK: [English] regions and devolved nations of equivalent size or less.

But surely, redesigning the funding and licensing models for public-service broadcasting is an ideal opportunity to, as it were, recast this model not remain hide-bound to it. Instead of an essentially two- or three-tier model for broadcast content and organisations (international and national-UK; regional-national; and genuinely local: down to the local community or even neighbourhood level), why can’t we work at developing a three- (or four-) tiered model: yes, international and truly UK-wide news and general programming; then properly national news, with a Scottish Six (BBC Scotland Six O’Clock News) matched by equivalent English Six and Welsh Six news programmes, for instance; and then truly local and regional news with, in the English context, programming at the level of shire counties or more authentic regional groupings of counties, such as an ‘Anglia’ region that combined Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk rather than the present ‘super-Anglia’ region that also includes Essex, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire; or say, a ‘Yorkshire’ region that reincorporated Humberside and Teeside?

This wouldn’t in fact necessitate the creation of a ‘BBC England’ paralleling the present BBC Scotland or BBC Wales. All you need do is restructure the organisation and funding of public-service broadcasters so that they can actually deliver programming that reflects the range of topics (international, national, regional-local) that people are genuinely interested in, and which fulfils the duty of news coverage to report the facts accurately, clearly and intelligently. So, for instance, instead of the main network news broadcasts being divided into international and supposedly UK / national stories (with the latter really being almost exclusively England-only while being misleadingly passed off as British, to the considerable annoyance of informed viewers in all four nations of the UK) followed by ‘regional’ news, you could divide them into three parts: international and properly UK-wide stories, for instance dealing with the economy, taxation, immigration or national security; then properly national-level stories, i.e. dealing with those levels of politics and society that are governed by the devolved institutions (or not, in England’s case); and then the local-regional news.

I’m sure there would be just as much demand and interest in Scotland and Wales for national-Scottish and national-Welsh news stories (albeit that these might seem parochial to an English audience) as there would be enthusiasm in England for properly English stories that are currently made out to be British, e.g. stories about education, transport, planning, crime and justice, and other social issues. While satisfying the English appetite to see England treated explicitly and fairly as a nation in its own right, and achieving a more accurate depiction of the range of governance across the UK following devolution (in line with the recommendations of a recent BBC report also commented in this blog), this would also free Scottish and Welsh viewers from being bombarded with entirely England-focused news masquerading as British. And I’m equally sure there would be plenty of interest in ‘regional’-Scottish and ‘regional’-Welsh broadcasting, reflecting the considerable cultural and economic diversity of the different parts of those countries, to match the local, county or regional-level concerns of English viewers.

But a restructuring of this sort would go completely against the grain of the present policies of denying England any representation as a nation: whether politically or on TV. And that’s why, in the consultation questions asked at the end of the report’s Executive Summary, there’s no thought of asking whether broadcasters consider there might be demand for national-English programming. No, it’s just nations and regions again:

  1. “Do you agree with our findings that nations and regions news continues to have an important role and that additional funding should be provided to sustain it?
  2. Which of the three refined models do you think is most appropriate in the devolved nations?
  3. Do you agree with our analysis of the future potential for local content services?”

Well, my answer to No.’s 1 and 2 is yes: but only if you’re counting England as a nation. But something tells me I could be regions away from the truth.

And finally, yet another plug: please sign the ‘England Nation’ petition. Thank you.

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