The Media Bill

By Media Reform Coalition / Tuesday November 7, 2023 Read More

READ: MRC briefing on the Media Bill

The Media Bill has been formally announced as part of the government’s legislative agenda for the next year. Although not mentioned directly in the King’s Speech, the accompanying briefing document lists the Media Bill as a measure to “support the creative industries and protect public interest journalism”.

If the Media Bill as currently tabled is passed into law, it would further commercialise the broadcasting sector, expose public service broadcasters to even greater political influence, and diminish the range, quality and value of public service content made for UK audiences.

The Media Bill: no evidence, no strategy and no mandate

In the 20 years since the last major piece of broadcasting legislation, the ‘traditional’ model of public service broadcasting (PSB) has faced significant challenges from new digital technologies, intense global competition and seismic shifts in audience habits.

In this context the Media Bill could have been an opportunity for wide-ranging debate about progressive reform to UK public media. Instead, after years of delays, distractions, funding cuts and political attacks on the BBC and Channel 4, the government is seeking to rush through hugely damaging changes in the final few months before a general election.

READ: MRC briefing on the Media Bill

The core proposals of the Media Bill pose a serious threat to the future sustainability, universality and popularity of PSB in the UK:

  • Introducing a narrower public service remit that removes requirements for programmes covering education, arts, religion and other socially and culturally valuable genres;
  • Allowing Channel 4 to make its own programmes, substantially reducing its commissioning from and investment in independent production companies;
  • Updates to broadcasting regulations that give important benefits to PSBs but offer limited protection for audiences, particular those most affected by the digital divide;
  • Deregulation of the commercial local radio sector, allowing stations to provide far less content made for and by people in local communities;
  • Repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, a measure introduced after the phone hacking scandal to give victims of press malpractice affordable access to justice.

Taken together the government’s plans will undermine the public value of PSB, create a something-for-nothing regime for commercial broadcasters, needlessly weaken the independent production sector, and further diminish the UK’s already dilapidated local media.

Worse still, these proposals have not been supported by any convincing evidence, meaningful public debate or democratic mandate. Nothing in the government’s 2022 White Paper, the Bill’s ‘impact assessment’ nor the King’s Speech briefing offers any meaningful justification for their proposals, let alone any serious analysis of its impact on audiences, the creative industries or the public interest. MPs are being given only a limited time to even debate and amend the Bill, as it has been rushed to the pivotal Second Reading stage in the Commons barely two weeks after being introduced to parliament.

It is not surprising that the government is trying to pass off the Media Bill as uncontroversial. Regulations like the prominence framework have been in desperate need of updating for years, and broadcasters (especially the commercial PSBs) have little reason to object to their public service obligations being relaxed – regardless of the impact on audiences. The risk is that these measures will be rushed through parliament with no effective public scrutiny or consultation.

At its core the Media Bill embodies an absence of long-term strategy for public media. If passed without significant amendments, the Bill will seriously harm the social, cultural and economic contributions provided by public service broadcasters.

Our briefing document explores the Media Bill in more detail, and sets out the MRC’s proposals for making the Bill more effective, more democratic and more reflective of the needs and interests of UK audiences.

MRC recommendations for the Media Bill:

1. Expand the public service remit for television

2. Establish a platform-neutral approach for PSB

3. Protect audience interests by strengthening PSBs’ regulatory ‘benefits’ and impartiality

4. Restate Channel 4’s founding mission as an innovative, risk-taking publisher-broadcaster

5. Enhance support for local public media

6. Put the public at the centre of running, funding and regulating public service media

Above all else, any changes to the UK’s broadcasting legislation must be supported by an open and evidence-led debate about the kind of media we want and the structures needed to create it.

Over the next few months we will be lobbying MPs, working with civil society groups and campaigning publicly to shape the Media Bill. You can help by joining the MRC, sharing our briefing document and proposals on social media, and contacting your local MP.