Earth to Ofcom: They’re our airwaves. Give us them back


Sometimes Ofcom, Britain’s media and telecomms uber-regulator, likes to agonise in public whether Britain needs a media and telecomms uber-regulator.

It must feel like a stag night in SE1, as the executives fly in expensive blue-sky wonks and consultants, and Ofcom gets quite giddy with itself at the prospect of a world without Ofcom. Then sobriety returns, of course, and it wakes up and finds itself knickerless and handcuffed to a lampost.

So Ofcom gets back to what it loves doing best: Making Very Big Decisions about What’s Good for Us.

Yesterday Ofcom published its second Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) review in five years, and while this one extends itself to encompass new media – such as the very intarweb you’re reading now – it doesn’t do much more than hem and haw, and fret about the status quo. This PSB review doesn’t dare answer the questions it raises, while leaving the biggest issues untouched.

So here’s a modest proposal.

How we must judge a media regulator is on how well it tackles the causes. Here we find Ofcom does less well. It tiptoes around a couple of gigantic issues, either of which is the proverbial elephant in the room. I’ll take each heffalump in turn.

While they dare not spell it out, I would say Ofcom’s analysts have described the surface of things just about right. There’s a super-abundance of stuff – and viewpoints – on the internet, which makes a repetitious, pack-chasing institutional news media that’s lost its confidence almost completely redundant.

And yet… there’s nothing worth watching on TV. There’s a yawning absence of formal channels to tell us stuff we didn’t know, or join the dots. This, concludes Ofcom, leaves our children, and those provincials who still point at aeroplanes (I paraphrase) – in grave peril. It couldn’t quite bring itself to go all the way, and suggest that we’re all in peril (or not) if this mythical thing called Public Service Broadcasting disappears.

What’s a broadcast? Who is allowed to do it?

Let’s look at the first elephant. What material and what mechanisms make up a permissible definition of “broadcasting”? And who is allowed to do it, and where?

Well, as the regulator pointed out yesterday, the tools of production are now cheap and widely available. But as they fail to point out, so are the tools of transmission. And now, huge areas of spectrum, which notionally belong to us and which we merely entrust to Ofcom, are up for grabs. So why not make better use of them? Why not give them back to us?

It’s a taboo subject, of course; state regulators have been loathe to trust people with “real” media. But as it happens, Ofcom has already tried this bold move, and with spectacular results.

When people are given professional-quality training, and let loose to be creative, the results are terrific. The regulator has been granting dozens of licenses for low power community FM radio stations in recent years, and these often shame the heavily sponsored “official” stations they jostle against on the radio dial.

Manchester’s Radio Regen has trained many hundreds of people, and in contrast to the patronising “citizen journalism” projects undertaken by digital missionaries, these have produced great programs, and had a real effect on the communities.

Something strange happened in Salford, when this was tried out:

“Local police neighbourhood nuisance in the areas went down during the months Radio Regen was working people there, with reductions petty crime. During the PCK FM broadcast, the local desk sergeant was invited in for an interview. When asked if he was having a good weekend, he replied, ‘Yes, because you lot are keeping the teenagers off the street!’”

They were making radio programs.

So although these licenses are given out with the same sniffy disdain for the proles as a petrol station grudgingly letting the local travellers use the forecourt WC, let’s give credit where it’s due. And then build on the success.

Alas, it seems that the powers that be have a grimmer vision of society in mind. They would much prefer the population was pharmaceutically pacified – ideally using some kind of self-service dispensing mechanism; a Web 2.0 widget, perhaps. And should the masses stray into self-expression, however, then it must be as solitary bloggers, communing with the Hive Mind by posting messages into the ether that no human will ever read – but that provide raw material for Google Adwords and Phorm intercepts. Which can then be processed and fed back to them.

In this scenario, the streets will also be free of teenagers – but the fibre optic cables will pulse with targeted and relevant behavioural advertising (And government health warnings, of course).

Which vision of society do you prefer?

There’s a practical policy problem, however. Spectrum that today is used by analogue radio and analogue TV, is earmarked for “reapportionment”. This is really what Ofcom loves most, because the bureaucratic carve up that results gives it “tax and spend” powers.

In yesterday’s consultation document, it’s clear Ofcom has already decided who should get this spectrum. And we know what happens next. After another bout of consultation, and evidence-based research – which will then be chucked in the bin – the spectrum will be handed to telecoms companies for “mobile TV”.

But why reapportion it at all? Why can’t we have it back?

What’s public service, anyway?

This bring us to the second elephant, what does “public service” mean anyway? You’ll have to read thousands of words (we haven’t counted) of policy documents Ofcom unleashed on us yesterday, to discover that it really doesn’t know the answer itself. It knows what “public service broadcasting” should do – it should leave a nice smell in the room, one of “plurality”. And one of “Britishness”, apparently too.

But it doesn’t go any further, and it studiously makes a point of avoiding the subject by outsourcing the research to third parties. One of these consultants, tasked with the heroic job of defining “public service” for wibbly web material – suggested … BoingBoing, RealClimate, and The Richard Dawkins Foundation websites. You couldn’t find three better examples of hermetically-sealed groupthink if you tried. They’re cults in the making.

(And just to show these new media consultants are heroically clueless, Symantec’s Virus forum is also on the list. It’s a public service, too, apparently).

There’s nowt on TV

A few years ago, as now, Ofcom saw how funding for high quality “public service” programming as we know it would dry up. It came up with a very good idea – a “Public Service Publisher” – which would give an additional source of funding for programme makers.

The BBC, insulted by this challenge to its monopoly, fought this concept tooth and nail, and succeeded in killing it. (The “PSP” resurfaced with a Web 2.0 flavour as the notorious “Nathan Barley Quango”, that Reg readers helped shoot down last year – Thankfully, that was absent from yesterday’s discussion document.)

But with the BBC dying a death of a thousand cuts – why not revive the PSP in its original form? The funding could come from… well, the BBC.

One of the most attractive ideas I’ve heard in years is to take the license fee and divide it up in £25,000 chunks – and give it to anyone who wanted it. The argument is: we have so many excellent TV people in the UK, quality would win out. We’d still get Top Gear, and The Archers, but imagine what else we could have, too? Once we have the spectrum back, we ought to have the programming back, too.

But as promised, we won’t duck the issue that Ofcom avoided – which is what criteria should such £25,000 chunks, or £4bn chunks, be given out?

Well here’s a suggestion that came up at El Reg during our “BBC Week” last November. I think it’s a good one. (If you’re squeamish, when you see the word “BBC” in the next paragraph, just substitute the word “gatekeeper” – for the point is applicable to whoever holds a substantial amount of commissioning money). Take it away, Luther Blissett:

The BBC has to decide if people are stupid or intelligent.

If the former, then embedded reporters will continue to be interviewed in politically correct terms by talking heads about unverified snippets from dubious sources while spilling the beans in selective fashion, and people will use the internet to find the other side of the coin.

If the latter, then it has to get out of the way and allow disparate points of view to be put by those who hold them, and their narratives aired sufficiently fully so people don’t have to use the internet to make up their minds. Since some narratives are more complex and/or harder to put across, it has to jettison its specious simulacrum of a concept of “balance” – which in any case would be irrelevant. (The question of when to pull the broadcasting plug on a narrative might be settled in various ways. One would be to see when it degenerates into tedium, repetition, blatant adversariality, tendentiousness, ad hominem attacks, personality cult, etc).

And here’s the punchline:

Rationality… really needs an intellectual overhaul which does not leave reason itself as the privilege of a select few tribes or as a mode of life which one tribe can seek to impose on another. In other words .. either we all are capable of reasoning in one and same way, or none of us are.

In other words, we’re all capable of thinking for ourselves. In the week that the Beeb cowered before a fact-free fanatic, touting the “emerging truth” of an “infant science”) this seems particularly poignant.

Now here’s the BBC’s Adam Curtis, on what a fragmented landscape looks like when the “public service” media don’t know what they’re doing.

What marks out all these groups is that they’re fundamentally negative – they’re looking for something to criticise. They don’t have a political ideal – and they don’t know what’s going on. So they retreat into a simplified and often very dated view of the world.

Which is fine, because actually you’re right, most people throughout history have a simplified view of the world. What a journalist’s job is to try and do, is go a tiny bit further than that, and actually try and open people’s minds up, and ask, “Have you thought of looking at it this way?” That’s its job.

What’s happening on the internet is that people are retreating into their citadels where they will not have that. And if you try and do it, they don’t like it. Because you’re joining up the dots in a way that isn’t the way they joined up the dots.

What really happens now, is that they’re so entrenched in their self-referential groups, anyone who joins up the dots any other way is a bad person.

That’s the kind of groupthink so beautifully exemplified by Ofcom’s idea of public service: BoingBoing, RealClimate and the Dawkins personality cult.

So from those two starting points, we can see a real strategy for Public Service Broadcasting begin to emerge. It should start with giving us the airwaves, and unlocking the talent.

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