Losing the whip, crossing the floor, upsetting the balance – how changes of allegiance reflect turbulent political times

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(c) shutterstock

A while ago I posted on a House of Commons Library paper on apologies in the House since 1979.

 

Subsequently the Library issued a paper on MPs’ change of party allegiance during the same period. All in all there were 174 incidences of changing allegiance, an act which consists of either having the party whip removed, making the MP ‘independent’, or switching to another party entirely.

 

Looking through the document it becomes clear that, while some of the changes of allegiance are removals of the whip due to such individual indiscretions, it serves as an indicator to some of the more turbulent times in recent British parliamentary history.

 

The first thing to catch one’s eye is the large number of MPs switching to the newly-formed Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. These included two of the SDP’s founding ‘Gang of Four’, David Owen and Bill Rogers, as well as future (and last) SDP leader, Robert Maclennan. All those switching were Labour apart from a single Conservative, one Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler (no, me neither).

 

Interestingly Bruce Douglas-Mann MP switched from Labour to ‘Independent SDP’, which one can’t help thinking is taking things too far, although this was apparently due to his making the unique (among SDP converts) decision to resign his seat and seek re-election at a by-election. This wasn’t welcomed by the SDP leadership who initially said they wouldn’t fund his campaign. Douglas-Mann lost the by-election lost again in the 1983 general election, and again in 1987. He gave up after that.

 

The SDP still exists by the way, although oddly for a party whose name is an abbreviation it seems to struggle with them: “We will encourage the creation of industrial clusters in Special Economic Zones (SPZs) for relatively depressed areas” – right…

 

In September 1991 Dave Nellist and Terry Fields were both expelled from the Labour Party for being members of the Militant tendency. Nellist apparently briefly shared an office with Tony Blair following the 1983 general election, but given their differing views, this was a short-lived arrangement…

 

Then there were the eight Conservative MPs who had the whip withdrawn owing to their voting against the EC Finance Bill in November 1984 (plus Sir Richard Body who resigned the whip in protest in support of the others).

 

Government interventions in the Middle East post-2001 also caused some changes, for example Labour MP Paul Marsden changed to Lib Dem in December 2001, due to his opposition to the war in Afghanistan, but then subsequently re-joined Labour in April 2005. George Galloway changed to his own Respect Party in October 2003, having been expelled from the Labour Party for views expressed on the Iraq war.

 

Moving on to February 2019 there was another significant chunk of defectors, this time eight Labour and three Conservative, to form a new independent group of MPs, becoming Change UK in April that year (and from July, The Independent Group for Change – TIGC). Six of these then changed to plain old Independent in June 2019 following the poor performance of CUK in the European elections. Two of those (I hope you’re keeping up), Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston, then changed to Lib Dem, in June and August 2019 respectively, to be joined by most of the others later that year. All those still in Parliament lost their seats in the 2019 General Election, and TIGC itself was dissolved in December 2019. Not a happy story, really.

 

No fewer than 21 Conservative MPs had the whip withdrawn in September 2019, following their voting for an emergency motion to allow the House of Commons to undertake proceedings on the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill on 4 September. Ten of these had the whip restored in October that year, the rest remained Independent and stood down prior to December 2019 general election, with the exception of Sam Gyimiah and Antoinette Sandbach, who swapped to the Lib Dems, but then lost their seats.

 

The 21 MPs also included Rory (or to give him his full name, Roderick James Nugent) Stewart, who incidentally is the author of a very good book, relating the story of his walk across Afghanistan in early 2002.

On the individual side, there are unsurprisingly correlations between those who had the whip withdrawn and those giving apologies, including our friends Ron Brown and Stephen Byers (the latter of whom surely missed a trick by not creating a new Taxi Party). Another particularly notorious episode involved Ann Winterton MP, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn in February 2004 on account of making what the Guardian described as “offensive, tasteless and arguably racist joke” concerning the more than 20 Chinese workers who drowned whilst picking cockles in Morecambe Bay.

 

Overall the whip was withdrawn 76 times, from 73 MPs, with three being punished more than once. The latter include Chris Williamson, Labour MP for Derby North, who had the whip withdrawn in both February and June 2019 (the latter just two days after he’d had the whip restored) due to views expressed relating to accusations of antisemitism within the Labour Party. He subsequently lost a high court bid to get the second suspension overturned.

 

The other two were Labour’s Denis MacShane (who was subsequently imprisoned for fraudulent expense claims) and Conservative Charlie Elphicke (recently convicted of sexual offences). Overall MPs resigned the whip 31 times, with six of them doing so twice.

 

The most recent change is Dr Julian Lewis, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn and became Independent after managing to outmanoeuvre the government’s preferred candidate, Chris Grayling, to become Chair of the intelligence and security committee. This led the Scottish National party’s shadow defence secretary, Stewart McDonald MP, to comment: “With his abysmal record of failure as a Tory minister, Chris Grayling is the only man who could lose a rigged election.”

 

Who knows what the next change of allegiance will be, but Parliament never disappoints in terms of incident, so we can only watch and wait…

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Saying sorry for not saying sorry, and other Parliamentary apologies…

 

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The House of Commons Library has just published details of the apologies given by MPs to the House of Commons since 1979. The research paper and accompanying spreadsheete include links to the statements themselves.

It makes for interesting and in some cases fun reading. By my reckoning there were 81 apologies in all: Conservative – 40; Labour – 35; Lib Dem – 2; Ulster Unionist Party – 2; Plaid Cymru – 1; Democratic Unionist Party – 1.

Of course this isn’t very indicative of how well-behaved any particular party’s MPs are, given Labour and Conservative were the largest two parties by far during the period in question.

So much for the quantitative data, but the qualitative data is where the real fun lies.

There are, it has to be said, some rather mundane offences such as ‘Lack of notification given to a Member when questions are to be grouped’ (Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg in 1991).

However for every one of those there is a ‘Rudeness when requesting an apology from Secretary of State for Education’ (Labour’s Andrew Faulds, 1993 – not his only offence) or a ‘Use of an improper word’ (Conservative Peter Lilley, 2000).

‘Using unparliamentary language’ actually crops up a few times, perhaps after a visit to one of the House’s many bars, although this was only alleged once back in 1982, when Conservative Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards ‘Suggested during a debate that another Member had been drinking’.

Alcohol-related remorse was also expressed by Eric Joyce MP for ‘Behaviour in the Strangers Bar on 22 February 2012’, or as the Evening Standard put it ‘MP goes berserk in Commons bar brawl’.

One might expect that, following the Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, MPs might have been queuing up in droves to apologise, but there were only three expenses-related apologies that year. This admittedly includes Labour’s Jacqui Smith ‘Claiming for the cost of films, alongside the cost of her broadband and cable connection’ in 2009, although for some reason she forgot to mention this reportedly included her husband watching adult entertainment.

Perhaps the most embarrassing apology was Labour Welsh Secretary Ron Davies’ “moment of madness”, when he fatefully accepted a dinner invitation from a stranger on Clapham Common (aka ‘Error of judgement in failing to protect his personal safety and becoming a victim of crime’, 1998).

And a unique apology was that of Labour’s Stephen Byers, who had to apologise in 2006 for not apologising enough the first time, or ‘Not saying sorry at the time of Personal Statement on 17/10/2005’.

Of all of them though, surely the gold standard is set by Ron Brown MP’s statement of apology for ‘Throwing the mace to the floor’ in 1988. He wasn’t the only MP to have handled the mace of course, but while I haven’t checked I can’t believe any other related apology reads as much like a Monty Python script as Brown’s. The Library documents don’t supply links to the earlier statements, but I found it here – enjoy…

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The BBC and the tug-of-war over the over-75s Licence Fees

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[image from shutterstock and adapted by Tim Wilson]

In their role as pressure groups, charities do of course use any topical circumstances they can to pursue their own objectives, but it’s disappointing when they don’t consider the unintended consequences, or present the full picture.

Take the approach to the BBC’s current consultation on its options for addressing the future policy for TV licences for the over-75s.

This is already a political hot potato for the BBC. When the Corporation was handed responsibility for the future of the policy, it had the option of having to pay the crippling costs of the free TV licences, or be publicly unpopular by increasing living costs for older people.

AGE UK is campaigning on the position that if older people have to pay the TV Licence Fee (TVLF) it will ‘push them into poverty’. We all have sympathy with the plight of those older people who are financially vulnerable, but making the TVLF into such a big issue is a dangerous game if the Government doesn’t back down. Personally, I don’t believe it will under the current administration (and yes I know we don’t know how long that administration will be there…).

But one thing is certain – by talking in terms that make the issue so critical to older people, this campaign puts more pressure on the BBC not to drop or reduce the free Licence Fees.

And then there’s 38 Degrees. This is a popular and sometimes very effective campaigns group but, like too many of these initiatives, its desire to simplify subjects and raise emotional responses sometimes cause it to potentially mislead the well-meaning folks who use it to support issues they care about.

38 Degrees is telling its subscribers the following regarding the BBC:

‘due to government funding changes it’s now facing a horrible choice. Do they cut dozens of loved programmes and channels, or do they scrap free licences for older people, some of whom rely on TV for entertainment and company?

The BBC has one other option: they could “means test” the licence fee for over-75s. This means that older people who can afford it, would pay the fee. There would still have to be cuts, but we could keep more of the channels and TV shows we love.

Anyone reading the BBC consultation will know that the BBC does not have only one other option – in fact it has presented a number of possible measures, some of which could be introduced simultaneously, including: raising the over-75 threshold (to, for example, the over-80s);  reducing the concession (for example to 50%); and, yes means-testing. Some have also suggested the concession could be limited to households where those resident are over the qualifying age.

So I’m not sure why 38 Degrees has chosen to give its network the impression that the only alternative to the BBC shouldering the financial burden is to means-test older people (I did e-mail them to point out that the BBC had presented other options but have not to date had a reply). They also imply that means-testing would be a new and unpleasant process for older people when in fact the BBC consultation suggests it could be done “by linking free licences to one of the Government’s measures of pensioner income, for example Pension Credit”.

It’s also worth considering that all of the above campaigning, even with the best intentions, is to an extent brought into question by Ofcom’s data published on 14 January, which highlights the wider range of vulnerable people who might struggle to pay for their TV licences, and to my mind brings into question whether the over-75s is the right demographic to be targeting for blanket support:

‘Some vulnerable people have had difficulty paying for communications services in the last year. People with long-term mental illnesses (33%) and 16-24 year-olds (17%) are the most likely to struggle to pay for these services. Conversely, older people are the least likely to have struggled, with just 2% of over 75s highlighting affordability problems.’

While £150 a year, even in today’s devalued-pound era, is still a sum of some significance, that such an amount can on its own push older people into poverty is surely just the symptom of a wider problem. If £150 is the difference between being in poverty or not, then those people are fundamentally too near the edge anyway, and need help of a more systematic kind. I suspect this is the point AGE UK is actually trying to make, but it’s questionnable whether the TVLF is the right political football with which to try to score a success on that front.

I’m sure it’s not the intention of either AGE UK or 38 Degrees, but I do feel these campaigns are fundamentally simplistic and potentially misleading, and will have the consequence of making the stakes even higher for the BBC, by implying that any attempt to ease its financial burden will be very hard on older people. It could well be that the only visible result of these organisations’ efforts is that they damage the BBC without helping older people.

 

Disclaimer: as always the views expressed here are solely mine, and not those of any organisation with which I work]

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The creative industries – summary of views on the EU

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From a creative industry perspective, I began viewing the whole EU referendum debate with a gut feeling that it was better to remain, but not necessarily knowing quite how strongly the case would actually be made to do so. One thing that did slightly concern me was that seemed as though at least some of those in the know were not in a position to inform the wider public of the real state of play.

But the face of what’s rightly being called a ‘tsunami’ of reports and analysis saying that Britain will be economically damaged if leaving the EU and, as we can see below, the creative industries sharing these fears, the picture seems fairly clear.

Publicly-published views from the industry have been increasing in recent months, culminating in the recent Creative Industries Federation survey showing 96% of respondents from its membership wanting to remain in the EU. 84% of CIF members also believed the referendum’s outcome was ‘important to the future success of their organisation’. Reasons cited were: access to EU markets and influence; access to EU funding; and movement of talent.

This now heads up quite a long list of creative industry organisations and surveys reflecting an overall desire to remain in the EU. An April Media Business International survey of over 800 media industry representatives showed that; ‘67% indicated they thought it better for the creative industries as a whole if Britain remained part of the EU…63% also said they felt leaving would have a negative impact on their business’.

Also in April, an Enders Analysis report concluded that ‘A post-Brexit recession will cause a hyper-cyclical decline in the advertising revenues of broadcasters and publishers’ and that ‘the UK joining a free trade area for goods with the EU would sever UK access to the Single Market for services, damaging the export-reliant audiovisual group, among many other sectors of strength’.

This echoed remarks from Pact CEO John McVay in Broadcast in February: “What’s unknown is whether a Brexit would mean any barriers for trade for UK exports or an increased cost of sales? If so, that would be a problem because it would impact the amount of money that we would be able to put back into UK programming”.

Elsewhere, an IPA advertising industry survey reported that ‘88% of respondents felt that prospects for their business were better if the UK remains within the EU’. This uncertainty around Brexit was cited in April for a fall in TV ad spend, a concern repeated by ITV in May.

Filmmaker Lord David Puttnam, Chair of the ‘Future of PSB TV’ review, has said “From the perspective of the world I know best, the film, TV and creative industries, life outside of the EU would be massively impoverished, both culturally and financially.”

Ukie, the video games trade body, has announced that 80.6% of its members think it is better for their businesses for Britain to stay within the EU

A number of creative industry players have set up a ‘Creatives4EU’ movement, citing the importance of ‘shared heritage’, ‘trade and employment’ and ‘cultural cooperation’

In a poll of the music industry, by the BPI, 68% supported remaining in the EU.

And perhaps inevitably, the most widely publicised contribution was a letter published from over 250 leading creative figures.

Key economic expert opinion seems clear

By their own reckoning it seems sure that the creative industries will have some significant readjusting to do if the decision is taken to leave, and many are clearly concerned it can only lead to a downturn in what is one of the country’s biggest growth businesses.

Key economic and business players have largely stated that leaving the EU could have significant negative economic consequences, both for business and for individual finances, including: the  Confederation of British Industry; British Chambers of Commerce’s business survey; the Governor of the Bank of England; and HM Treasury analysis.

As the Institute of Fiscal Studies stated in a report recently; ‘there is an overwhelming consensus among those who have made estimates of the consequences of Brexit for national income that it would reduce national income in both the short and long runs’.

Outside the UK, the World Trade Organisation director-general Roberto Azevêdo told the Financial Times that leaving the EU ‘would lead to unprecedented negotiations between the UK and the Geneva-based institution’s 161 other members’. The point being this would take many years and may not ultimately be fully successful, in terms of replacing the EU-WTO relationship that current exists. And the head of the International Monetary Fund has said that Brexit would result in: “lower output, lower growth and higher domestic prices”.

The cultural argument

In addition to the economic concerns the creative industries have, and to pick up on Lord Puttnam’s mention of the cultural importance, I will venture an opinion and say that I think it’s fair to suggest that most people in the creative industries are the type who naturally want to reach out, learn and exchange with others, and so it makes sense again to be part of the EU and use it to create better understanding and create a better arrangement with it. My sense is that this referendum debate could be a turning point for the EU, and if Britain stays, it could pave the way for issues to be addressed in a way that solves at least some of people’s concerns.

The EU has just launched its strategy to ‘put culture at the heart of EU international relations’, in recognition of the fact that ‘Cultural co-operation counters stereotypes and prejudice by nurturing dialogue, open-mindedness, dignity and mutual respect’. beyond this, one of the three main aims is to be a ‘strategy for inclusive growth and job creation’.

This is something in which the UK’s incredibly successful creative industries could lead the way, given the opportunity. Whether they have that opportunity remains to be seen.

 

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Channel 4 – the selling off of an idea?

It was welcome news to see that Channel 4 has increased its investment in British film. I previously noted in another post a number of issues currently of concern to the UK indie TV production sector, including the threat to Channel 4 of privatisation.

And I agree with those who describe it as a threat, a threat both to its public service remit and its work with indies.

Channel 4, and its Welsh language cousin S4C, began broadcasting in 1982 – and yes, I was in front of the TV when the bits of THAT logo came whirling into view to form that bold, multi-coloured ‘4‘.

C4 originalAnd the programmes, whilst rough around the edges in places, really did have a new innovative feel to them – even the soap Brookside with its social mix and its portrayal of taboo subjects. There were daring new presenters, formats and an irreverence that was terrific.

I was lucky enough to work with Channel 4 on various issues for a number of years, including the ‘Next on 4’ project, the results of which were four specific purposes written into the 2009 Digital Economy Act, as well as that remit being spread across its full portfolio of channels.

One of my jobs during the Next of 4 project was to interview over twenty indies, large and small on what they thought of the broadcaster. Yes, there was criticism, but what really came across was how it remained Channel 4 that was more prepared to listen to new companies without much of a track record, and to play a part in helping them along the road to being a fully-fledged production company.

It is Channel 4 that has done more than any other PSB to spread itself around the UK nations and regions, establishing voluntary targets to spend more outside London and setting up initiatives like the Alpha Fund.

Working now with the indie sector in Wales I know that they consider Channel 4 to be one of their best bets for securing a UK network production commission. Whilst it is admittedly now making the right noises about changing its commissioning culture, the BBC has in the past seen Wales as a numbers game, pointing to its investment in a single production facility (albeit an impressive one) in Cardiff as a sign of its commitment to Wales. This however, does not bring new stories, talent, perspectives and ideas from the rest of Wales, and it does not help to portray Wales to the rest of the UK.

Privatisation surely means that Channel 4 will head down the route, pursued by some other PSBs, to lobbying for more and more de-regulation, not least in terms of commitments to the nations and regions. It will also mean the reallocation of profits to its owners and/or shareholders instead of going back into new content.

It would also, according to CEO David Abrahams, force Channel 4 to reduce and/or move its news and documentary output out of peak time.

And it will mean a race to the safe ground that may simply fragment advertising and reduce a specific advertising market. Broadcast magazine reported that OMD chief executive Dan Clays described the proposition as “problematic … if it [privatisation] happens, there will be more pressure around profits, which will impact production budgets. That’s not something we want to see happen … Great content attracts audiences, which we need to sell advertising – it’s as simple as that”.

Another recent item on Channel 4’s agenda has been to argue for a revisiting the principles around intellectual property and the indie Terms of Trade. It’s perhaps this that has led many indies to be relatively quiet on this issue so far. Channel 4 has argued for a revision to the Communications Act 2003 to allow them to retain more intellectual property.

The indies don’t agree and neither do I. But as indies’ overall support of the BBC, whilst voicing concern about the BBC Studios proposals, has shown it’s possible to be a ‘critical friend’, and I’d argue it’s important to do the same in the case of Channel 4. In addition to siphoning profits out of the production cycle, a privatised Channel 4 may turn to in-house production as a way to retain more IP. Indies in Wales have made their feelings clear to Government that for Channel 4 to leave public hands would be a negative step – the wider sector at large perhaps needs to make more noise before it’s too late.

This needs to be talked about alongside the benefits Channel 4 brings to the public as a not-for-profit organisation. Of course opinion will be divided and some will point to some of Channel 4’s arguably low-brow or controversial content – but something like Benefits Street does create a real debate about how people should be portrayed, and then there’s Peepshow, arguably the best comedy in the last decade (it makes me laugh anyway…). Let’s hope Channel 4 will remain able to take risks on that kind of brilliantly original comedy in the future.

 

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What next for the UK indie TV production sector?

 

(c) Shutterstock

(c) Shutterstock

There are currently several real or potential negative policy outcomes faced by the UK independent TV production sector, including: decreasing public investment in content due to BBC cuts resulting from the Licence Fee deal; the potential privatisation of Channel 4 (which currently commissions its entire content from the indie sector but may change that model under new ownership); and, for the indie TV sector in Wales, the effects on their businesses of potential further cuts to S4C’s public funding.

Lastly there is the Terms of Trade review. It is widely accepted that protections in the 2003 Communications Act, which safeguard independent TV producers’ intellectual property (IP) rights, have over the last ten years enabled the UK indie TV production sector to become a multi-billion pound industry that exports programmes and formats worldwide. The resulting growth in skills and facilities, along with successive governments’ creative industry tax breaks, has also attracted overseas investment in UK content production.

The Communications Act effectively requires public service broadcasters (PSBs) to draw up Terms of Trade which allow producers’ to retain their IP rights, and also stipulates that any discussions about revenues from other exploitation (eg international sales, DVD, ‘secondary’ – ie cable and satellite – channels) are conducted separately.

But some PSBs, including the BBC and Channel 4, argue that the lack of ability to exploit IP is harming them financially and that the landscape has changed, with some indies now very large businesses and in some cases being bought up by broadcasters both in the UK and overseas. This is despite the fact that many of the aforementioned ‘super-indies’ no longer qualify for protection under the Act on Terms of Trade, or in terms of access to commissions which are part of the indie production quota of 25% of eligible hours.

The PSBs recently made the case to Ofcom to revise the Terms of Trade, but the media regulator’s third PSB review concluded in July that: ‘[we] do not, at this point, see a strong enough case at this stage for reform’.

So, surely a case of ‘everybody move on, nothing to see here’ ? … well no, because two months later the Government asked Ofcom to review the Terms of Trade again, causing advocates for the indie TV sector to take up once again the swords and shields of argument and statistics to make their seemingly already-proven case.

Ofcom has duly published terms of reference for the Terms of Trade review which correspond to the Government’s deadline of the end of this year. But many (not least those at Ofcom I suspect) will feel disquiet at not being given time for the normal procedure of 12 weeks’ consultation, followed by detailed assessment of the views received, to enable a suitably well thought-through conclusion.

The DCMS Secretary of State recently told the Culture Media & Sport Committee that “I am more keen to get [Charter Review] right than rush it in order to meet the deadline, so there is … the possibility that you could have a short extension to allow that to happen.” Applying such an extension might perhaps have avoided any perception, correct or otherwise, of Ofcom having to rush its work on such a crucial issue for the indie sector and by extension the UK economy.

Whatever time was provided for the Terms of Trade review, there’s compelling evidence already published by Pact and others pointing to the Terms of Trade’s success, making it hard for many to see how Ofcom could sensibly reverse its conclusion from the PSB Review.

Either way, the Government states that Ofcom’s conclusions will be treated as guidance rather than being automatically followed, causing concern on the part of some that what’s happening here is an example of ‘two wrongs’ syndrome: the BBC faces a net 10% reduction in funding, due to the recent Licence Fee deal causing the BBC to take on the cost of free over-75s TV licences. Due to planned investments, the BBC has said current services and content might have to find savings of up to 20% – a very large cut. So the thinking might be that altering the Terms of Trade, allowing the BBC to extract a share of indies’ IP, would help to compensate for that Licence Fee deal.

Leading on from this, it’s perhaps also being considered that if Channel 4 had greater powers over IP from the producers it commissions, it may make it a more attractive proposition to a potential buyer. But the government, and any potential owner of a privatised Channel 4, might note the fortunes or otherwise of ITV’s recent strategy of keeping more IP by taking a stake in some indies and by making more programmes in-house. ITV’s recent figures show that profits have indeed risen but that audiences are down – ultimately ITV relies on the latter to have a critical mass of viewing that attracts advertising and gives it a strong brand both here and overseas. So it’s a policy that may create short-term gain in exchange for long-term decline.

As someone who has worked both with broadcasters and the indie sector, I respect there is a balance to be struck. One of the first projects I worked on after leaving Pact in 2005 (having worked on the campaign to get the Codes of Practice into the Comms Act) was with Channel 4 regarding Ofcom’s review of online rights windows. Whilst Pact was arguing for very short windows for the broadcaster, I sympathised with Channel 4’s position that, with the producers having secured their overall rights, it was important that online windows allowed PSBs a suitable return on their investment in a programme.

But when it comes to the overall issue of producers retaining ownership of their IP rights, what’s at stake is the UK indie TV sector’s position as the biggest growth sector in our economy. And let’s not forget we are also talking about protecting a basic principle: that the company who came up with the idea, story, and talent to make a production work should be able to hold onto the IP that made the content worth watching. Failing to do so would simply deter people from taking their ideas to the BBC and others, or indeed entering the market in the first place.

So when you consider that: the indie TV production sector is doing so well; the Government has an unrelenting focus on growth; and that same government has introduced measures to help the creative industries, it feels strange for the sector to face several potentially negative policy outcomes.

We should never underestimate the internal lobbying and horse-trading that goes on within Government, particularly in these times of heavy overall reduction in public spending. At the aforementioned Select Committee hearing the DCMS Secretary also said he was making the case to the Treasury for public investment in the creative industries, and we can only hope he is successful – this at least might provide positive outcomes for the Channel 4 and S4C issues. And we must also hope he concludes that maintaining the principle of IP ownership for indies outweighs any arguments to the contrary.

What needs to emerge from all of these uncertainties is a creative sector which can still lead the world and of which we can all remain justifiably proud.

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BBC Charter Review – the early salvoes

For those working with the media/broadcasting industry, it feels at times as though BBC Charter Review has been discussed for several years already, but it is now well and truly upon us.

New Culture, Media & Sport Secretary John Whittingdale has it at the top of his in-tray, and his department is expected to produce a Green Paper before the summer.

In her Royal Television Society speech in February, BBC Trust Chair Rona Fairhead talked about the Trust carrying out a public consultation to make sure Licence Fee Payers were fully involved in the process.

What’s more, with a new Chair appointed in Jesse Norman MP, it’s likely the House of Commons Culture Media & Sport Select Committee may have a further say, although it is unlikely to re-stage the thorough inquiry which produced its recent ‘The Future of the BBC’ report.

Key Issues

Essentially the key battlegrounds for Charter Review are:

  • Funding, both in terms of the system used and the amount of money involved
  • Scale and Remit: doe the BBC still need to do everything it currently does – where should it do less (or more for that matter)?. Linked to this, should the BBC re-structure itself to make fewer programmes in-house?
  • Governance – with even the BBC Trust Chair telling the Oxford Media Convention that the Trust needs to be replaced, it’s less a question of whether or not the Trust will continue, than of what we’ll see next

Funding

John Whittingdale’s comments about the Licence Fee being ‘worse than the poll tax’ , made prior to his being appointed Secretary of State, have been reported widely. However there’s also been a fair amount of comment to the effect that he was talking about replacing the Fee some way down the line, rather than for the current Charter. The likelihood is that the outcome of the Charter Review is that we’ll see something similar to the Licence Fee but which takes catch-up viewing on the i-player into account (currently a loophole) – this was incidentally a key recommendation of the CMS Committee Report and BBC DG Tony Hall has called for a similar change.

As for the level of the Fee, the Government will be freezing it until the conclusion of this review, so until 1 Jan 2017 it will be £145.50. This does of course represent a real-terms cut as it’s not linked to RPI.

The BBC says this will affect content and services. This isn’t just a concern for the viewers, listeners, and surfers who enjoy the BBC’s content in large numbers, but also for those in the UK independent production sectors who provide a significant  amount of that content . Specifically, for the independent content production sectors with whom I work – in the audio-led and Welsh TV sectors respectively – the possible effects on radio budgets, and also the proportion of the Fee that goes to commissioning in Wales, are of real concern as their industries look to grow in tandem with the wider media sector. For the latter there are also longer-term concerns about the future of S4C, itself a publisher-broadcaster that invests heavily in the indie TV sector, and which is partly state-funded but mostly receives its public funding via the TV Licence Fee.

Governance

Lastly on governance there’s fairly unanimous agreement that with the Trust seemingly on its way out, the key is to have something in place which allows the BBC to have an effective internal management and governance structure, plus an external regulator (preferably one that doesn’t share the BBC’s own e-mail system this time…) which has some real independence and bite. We will have to see how this takes shape – for some, the logical thing is to have the BBC externally regulated by Ofcom, who after all regulate all the other Public Service Broadcasters – ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – as well as already regulating the BBC in some areas relating to content.

Scale and Remit

Labour’s Shadow Culture Media & Sport Secretary Chris Bryant maintains that having a universal Licence Fee means that if everyone’s putting something in, everyone should get something back, hence the importance of big-ticket production like ‘Strictly’, a programme which would very likely not have seen the light of day on any other broadcaster. This argument is intended to counter the idea that there are other broadcasters doing what the BBC does to the extent that it’s services are no longer necessary.

More widely, the BBC provides a great deal of creative competition and drives up standard. In radio this is partly evidenced by the fact that commercial stations are gradually increasing their commissioning of indies, on the basis that there is a sector which can demonstrate a track record of producing high-quality content for the BBC’s own services which prove popular with audiences. Recent commercial commissions include for Heart, Absolute, and Classic FM’s VE day live concert, the latter of which was produced by TBI Media, on the back of similar concerts the company produced for the BBC, for D-Day and other anniversaries such as the sinking of the Titanic and the shooting of JFK.

The perspective of the independent production sector, whether in TV, radio or online, is that the BBC is crucial for investment in ideas, skills and talent in our growing creative industries – this is evidenced by the level of support for Broadcast magazine’s Backing the BBC campaign. For the indie sector, the best scenario for securing the BBC’s future is one in which it is as flexible as possible and working as closely with as many creative entrepreneurs as possible. Doing so insulates it against accusations of oversized bureaucracy and payrolls, too many big buildings and all the other trappings that cause so many negative headlines in the press.

The other key aspect of Charter Review the BBC needs to take seriously is showing fundamental change in attitudes that means it is genuinely reaching out to source its content from as wide a range of sources as possible, spread well around the nations and regions of the UK, and thereby tacking the representation and diversity issues which rightly are so high up the agenda.

Whilst there is some debate about the details, and the proposals still need to be confirmed and then approved by the BBC Trust, Tony Hall’s Compete or Compare initiative appears to herald significant changes in that regard. In television it plans to remove the ‘in-house guarantee’ that prevents more than 50% of BBC programming being made by indie production companies, at the same time, and perhaps more controversially, there is also a turn in-house production into ‘BBC Studios’ which could compete for commissions from other broadcasters, and now in radio the BBC has proposed opening up a great deal more of its schedules to competition from indies.

Both in TV and radio, making sure the new commissioning structures provide a level-playing field for indie companies wherever they are based will be a key issue to sort out.

Overall, the future of the BBC is to play for and for those who are in one way or another involved, it’s going to be a major part of our working lives for the next 18 months or so. And at the end, we will know what the future holds not just for what is still the most influential player in British broadcasting, but the whole of the UK broadcasting and creative ecology for the next ten years and beyond.

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No matter who wins, this is a time to consider wider reform of Parliament

Climate change protestors at Parliament in September 2014 – but should they be outside the QEII Centre from now on? picture (c) Tim Wilson

Thursday’s election is looking to be incredibly close.

But whoever wins they will be governing in the midst of what in some ways is an archaic institution, epitomised by the nature of the Parliament building itself.

Anyone who has to deal with Parliament on a regular basis is aware of the extent to which it is a hostage to its own history.

The oppositional nature of the chamber: the crumbling building needing a £3bn upgrade; the house of Lords; the arcane practices; the limited website.

The refurbishment provides an opportunity for an overall re-examination of how our Parliament should work, and how its infrastructure can best enable that.

Here are some thoughts on what could be done – though I’m not holding my breath…

Move Parliament from the Palace of Westminster

We all agree it’s a magnificent building, but the Palace of Westminster has long been unfit for purpose: its labyrinthine structure, expensive-to-maintain décor, a chamber too small for all MPs to sit in and which encourages the ‘yah-boo’ politics – which every new PM and opposition leader decries and then finds they have to engage in. The answer to this is presenting itself to us more clearly than ever right now – it’s been decided the Palace needs to be renovated, requiring Parliament to be located elsewhere. Parliament’s temporary home is to be the Queen Elizabeth II Centre on the opposite corner of Parliament Square. So far so good, but instead of using this as an excuse to innovate, from what’s been said in public they will organise it all exactly the same – the same opposing benches, etc etc.

Stay at the QEII and restructure the Commons Chamber

The move to the QEII for the refurbishment should be permanent – although, allegedly, Her Majesty herself isn’t terribly fond of the QEII Centre, it’s nevertheless a more modern building and one which would accommodate a more open type of place within which to do business. As for the debating chamber, a circular seating arrangement would help to modernise our politics, with individual desks for each member, complete with microphone and screens upon which the business of the day is visible, along with supporting information and documents to better inform debates. No more need for shouting, and no simplistic division of Government and opposition with a single dividing line – in an era where we have seen coalition government, and could well do again in the near future, this surely makes sense.

We should ask how many more aspiring intelligent potential MPs – especially women, who remain under-represented in Parliament – would be prepared to take the job if the circumstances existed in which they could conduct informed debate in an orderly manner without having to shout, sit on someone else’s knee in key debates etc…

Update the Lords – but without elections

As some wiser heads point out whenever the idea of electing the Lords is raised, more elections don’t always equal better democracy. The Lords, yes, does have some party apparatchiks, but even those people have mainly been through the system and come out the other side – ie they are no longer so ambitious, power-hungry or willing to toe the line for the sake of party cohesion. Equally the appointees, often portrayed as people who’ve got a seat in the Lords via donating or some other activity, nevertheless represent a good deal of experience in the law, across industry, health, local government, the media, sport and many other important parts of our society. Such people might well not want to, or feel suited to, be involved in elections. We will instead get a second tier of politicos which I’m not sure will give us what is needed, namely an effective scrutinising body.

So we could simply remove all the outdated trappings – the ermine, the titles, the remaining hereditary peers – and update the chamber along the lines of the suggestions for the Commons above. It can be renamed a Senate, or Congress, or whatever, but the system should not shift to a more US-style approach – few people would want to see the type of deadlock Barack Obama’s faced during his one-and-a-half terms. A system also needs to be introduced so that a day’s allowance is only paid if there has been a day’s attendance.

Make more information publicly available

The Parliament website has gradually improved, but in some ways it is still put to shame by the independent They Work For You site, which allows users to track individual MPs for example and has such nice touches as showing an MP’s photo by their contributions to debates etc. If TWFU can do it on a shoestring, why not the official website? Neither is the parliament.uk search facility great – even if one can find the ‘advanced’ version.

And while we’re at it…

gov.uk has definitely improved the nature of the departmental websites, through standardising the information available, along with the format and generally becoming more user-friendly, but the structure of the civil service is still remarkably opaque. Clear departmental structures, with contact details, at least by e-mail, should be readily available, along with a far more sophisticated system of e-mail notifications (this again goes for Parliament.uk) which allows someone to keep an eye on key official developments without having to pay a third-party agency and/or rely on contacts to get the latest on what’s going on.

And what of the Palace of Westminster?

An iconic building such as this can easily be made to successfully work for a living. The possibilities include a museum / conference centre / leisure facility – after all, it’s already set up with restaurants, bars and so on.

It was interesting to read, in some of the weekend’s press, speculation as to whether the increasingly fragmented nature of voting patterns will cause people to reconsider proportional representation next time. But even working within the system we have, it would be good post-election for whoever’s in power looking to make the reforms Parliament needs to make it more effective.

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BBC Event: Wearable Technology for Radio & Music

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                                                               (c) Shutterstock

A brief report on a workshop and demonstration, hosted by the BBC in the fabulous Learning Zone at Broadcasting House, London:

The event sought to demonstrate wearable technologies and get those involved in audio and music content thinking about how they might work with them.

Attendees included staff from various BBC departments plus audio-led indies including Somethin’ Else, Digital Drama and Art & Adventure.

There were various items of tech on show around the room, including a 3D interactive headset, Google Glass etc.

The speakers focused on a few specific types of innovation and contributed to the development of around ideas how people’s needs can be met by the use of potential of these different technologies:

Jasmine Cox from BBC R&D presented the ‘playlist button’, a small device with a button that is able to link a track that’s heard on a BBC service to a BBC playlister account. It’s currently being trialled and further work is being done to research how it could be built upon, eg it only currently works with BBC network radio services but in theory could be expanded for commercial radio.

James Cridland, radio futurologist, talked about the possibilities for new apps created by the smart watch, and in particular the multiple sensors contained within them. These include gyro, accelerometer, compass, barometer, heart rate monitor, GPS, mic, light sensor, and buzzer – some or all of which could be used to develop some compelling new ideas.

Drama writer Naomi Alderman demonstrated the fitness audio games app ‘Zombies, Run!’, which has been downloaded some 1.5m times. The game borrows from first-person role-playing and shooter video games, with the player ‘picking up’ items (by running a certain random distance), and thus helping to ‘strengthen’ a zombie-free town and unlocking new missions. She emphasised that the idea started not with the technology, but rather from the desire to make running more compelling for those who struggled to keep up their fitness routine – and whilst it utilises smartphone technology the idea is based on the timeless skill of good storytelling.

A brainstorming session followed on how some of the apps might be used, but it seems unfair to reveal the ideas that emerged here. Suffice to say the event was a good opportunity to for content creatives and innovators from inside and outside the BBC to consider how they might be applied to new content and services.

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Party Manifestos – Media and Broadcasting

Below I’ve done my best to itemise the key elements of each of the parties’ policies on the BBC, Creative industries and Media/Broadcasting – all errors, omissions etc are entirely my own …

All Manifesto Covers 2015

Conservative [Full Manifesto link]

  • Freeze TV Licence Fee until conclusion of Charter Review
  • The TV Licence Fee will continue to be top-sliced to support broadband infrastructure
  • George Osborne has also suggested the BBC could be regulated by Ofcom, indicating the Tories would most likely remove the BBC Trust
  • Will continue with creative industries tax reliefs and to seek to protect creators’ copyright from piracy
  • Maintain freedom of press whilst recognising its responsibilities
  • Ed Vaizey has given assurances on Radio 4’s Today programme that Channel 4 would not be privatised
  • Ban police from accessing journalists’ phone records

DUP [Full Manifesto Link]

  • ‘Freeze, then cut or abolish the TV licence and reform the BBC’
  • ‘An independent Commission should be established to
    conduct a review of how the BBC is structured and
    the services it provides’

Green [Full Manifesto link]

  • ‘Maintain the BBC as the primary public service broadcaster, free of government interference, with funding guaranteed in real terms in statute to prevent government interference’
  • The Greens’ website states that public statements have suggested this would be through index-linked general taxation rather than the Licence Fee
  • Restrict copyright to 14 years and extend copying rights
  • Increase government arts funding by £500m pa
  • Implement full Leveson recommendations, by legislation if necessary

Labour [Full Manifesto link]

  • ‘The BBC makes a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life, and we will ensure that it continues to do so while delivering value for money.’
  • NB: Labour has stated on several occasions that it supports the Licence Fee and is expected to maintain Licence Fee funding of BBC for the next Charter
  • ‘A universal entitlement to a creative education so that every young person has access to cultural activity and the arts by strengthening creative education in schools and after-school clubs’
  • ‘Increase the number of apprenticeships in the creative industries’
  • ‘Create a Prime Minister’s Committee on the Arts, Culture and Creative Industries, with a membership drawn from all sectors and regions.’
  • ‘Ensure all parts of the country benefit from affordable, high speed broadband by the end of the parliament.’
  • Committed to keeping Channel 4 as a publicly-owned broadcaster
  • Implement Lord Leveson’s media regulation recommendations

Further measures are detailed in Labour’s subsequently-published Charter for the Creative Industries

[NB: The independent Woodward report, recently published, set out many other policies which the Labour leadership has broadly supported, including maintaining the creative industry tax breaks and requiring the BBC to commission more radio from indie producers This does not guarantee that all the report’s recommendations will be carried out in full but it will provide a strong starting point if Labour take power. The report also supported in broad terms the Compete or Compare proposal for BBC Productions to compete for commissions from other broadcasters]

Liberal Democrat [Full Manifesto link] [Creative Industries Manifesto Link]

  • ‘Protect the independence of the BBC while ensuring the Licence Fee does not rise faster than inflation’
  • Will maintain funding to British Council, BBC World Service, BBC Monitoring
  • ‘Support growth in the creative industries, including video gaming, by continuing to support the Creative Industries Council, promoting creative skills, supporting modern and flexible patent, copyright and licensing rules, and addressing the barriers to finance faced by small creative businesses.’
  • Maintain Creative Industries tax credits
  • Promote value of creative subjects in schools, including a minimum curriculum requirement in state schools ‘Maintain Channel 4 in public ownership and protect the funding and editorial independence of Welsh language broadcasters.’
  • ‘will remove Ministers from any role in appointments to the BBC Trust or the Board of Ofcom.’
  • Will create a Minister with joint responsibility for the creative industries and copyright
  • Ofcom to regularly review media plurality

Plaid Cymru [Full Manifesto link]

  • Establish ‘a BBC Trust for Wales as part of a more federal BBC within the UK’
  • ‘establishing a new Welsh language multimedia service to operate online, on radio and other platforms, in order to reflect the needs of Welsh language audiences and improve current affairs coverage in Wales.’
  • The Welsh Government should appoint Wales-related board members of Ofcom and the BBC Trust, as well as board members of the S4C Authority.
  • Transfer oversight and funding of S4C to Wales Government.
  • Will ensure that S4C is adequately funded and that the channel maintains editorial independence.

SNP [Full manifesto link]

  • ‘We’ll seek increased investment through BBC Scotland so that a fairer share of the Licence Fee is spent in Scotland, giving a £100m boost to our creative sector’
  • The SNP also recently demanded that the BBC pay more money for broadcasting rights to Scottish football
  • Previous proposals have suggested that the SNP would replace the BBC with a separate Scottish Broadcasting Service Support Creative Content Fund for the games industry and support the Video Games tax relief, as well as calling for greater measures to address skills shortages.

UKIP [Full Manifesto link]

  • Will de-criminalise the Licence Fee
  • A policy list on the UKIP website states that UKIP ‘will review the BBC Licence Fee with a view to its reduction’ – further to this, Nigel Farage has said during the campaign that “I would like to see the BBC cut back to the bone to be purely a public service broadcaster with an international reach, and I would have thought you could do that with a license fee that was about a third of what it currently is”
  • Manifesto promises to abolish government departments ‘when their essential powers and functions can be merged into other departments’, including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

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