Fighting for Space

Portrait of Gareth Benest
Gareth Benest Director of Advocacy 28th November 2023

Ritula Shah chairing the panel discussion.

On Monday night, we launched our report on the future of public service media and the threat to international content.  We were joined at the Palace of Westminster by many IBT members, together with senior representatives from the nation’s newsrooms, foreign correspondents, current affairs commissioners, and Members of the House of Lords. 

Gareth Benest, author of the report and IBT’s Director of Advocacy reflects on the evening’s discussion.

Baroness Bonham-Carter warmly welcomed the report in her opening address, praising its vital contribution to the debate surrounding the government’s Media Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament.  Following a short presentation of the report findings and our concerns surrounding the legislation, we held a fascinating panel discussion led by veteran broadcaster Ritula Shah (former presenter of The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4).

On the panel were Esme Wren (Editor, Channel 4 News), Jonathan Munro (Deputy CEO BBC News & Director of Journalism), Gareth Barr (Director of Policy and Regulation, ITV), and Catherine Johnson (Professor of Media and Communications, University of Leeds).

The Media Bill – areas of concern

The discussion started with the Media Bill and the negative impact that IBT fears it will have on the enduring presence of international storytelling.  In particular, we are concerned about three aspects of the Bill:

  • The freedom for the public service broadcaster (PSBs) to meet obligations online, leaving linear schedules unburdened and open to further commercialisation
  • A lack of transparency around how public service media will operate online
  • The simplification of the remit which has stripped-out obligations to international content beyond news and current affairs.  

Our advocacy has achieved some significant changes to the Bill but there’s more to do.

The Media Bill – broadly welcomed by the broadcasters

Jonathan Munro told us that, whilst the Media Bill doesn’t affect the BBC as much as the other PSBs (ITV, Channel 4, S4C, STV, Channel 5), it welcomes the changes it brings to the overall system.  He said there is always a balance to be struck, between regulation and giving the media the space to innovate, which the BBC believes has been found in the legislation.

Gareth Barr praised officials at the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) for consulting widely, properly understanding the key issues, and taking time to carefully craft a Bill (the first in 20 years) that goes a long way towards meeting the challenges of a rapidly-changing media landscape.

Professor Johnson shared her concerns surrounding the simplification of the remit and recent changes to the Bill that requires PSBs to deliver ‘an appropriate range of genres’, which she contends is ambiguous and open to interpretation.  “We don’t realise how lucky we are in the UK. There is so much choice that is not available in other countries, and that is thanks to regulation.” Professor Johnson echoed IBT’s concerns around how PSBs deliver their obligations online, insisting the Bill “has nothing to say about algorithms.  There needs to be more transparency in how prominence will work on personalised devices, and how Ofcom will regulate this space”.

International news and current affairs is thriving say the broadcasters

The discussion also focussed on international news and current affairs, with all the broadcasters mounting a robust defence of their performance in recent years.  Esme Wren told us that Channel 4 News is reaching huge audiences for its linear broadcasts and also online.  She said that audiences were watching the whole programme (one hour) millions of times on YouTube, and they are achieving significant prominence on Channel 4’s own streaming platform.

Whilst Esme recognised IBT’s concerns around the dominance of particular new stories (such as Ukraine) squeezing out coverage of other countries and issues, she told us there is massive interest in global stories which Channel 4 News is covering with a smaller budget than others enjoy.  She said that, far from diminishing, international news coverage is at its strongest, at least on Channel 4.

The audience contributed valuable insights and comments, reflecting a range of experiences and concerns.  Sarah Whitehead (Director of Newsgathering and Operations, Sky News) told us that people are really engaged with news right now, particularly stories from Ukraine, which drive audiences to other international news.  She told us that Sky News is committed to delivering international content to audiences where they are, and where they want to be.

Tom Giles (Controller of Current Affairs, ITV) said the broadcaster is making twice as many international current affairs programmes as ever before, which is a trend he detects across the wider sector.  He pointed to his experience as a judge for the RTS Awards which receives so many submissions of international current affairs that they have to limit the viewing time.  “In terms of international current affairs, it could be argued that we are super-serving audiences,” he told us.

A digital-first environment gives the broadcasters more flexibility 

Gareth Barr said current affairs should thrive within the digital-first environment.  He said ITV would be able to commission across a wider range of genres because they will no longer be bound by having to develop content for particular slots on linear channels.

Foreign correspondent for Channel 4 News, Secunder Kermani said that whilst news does perform well in today’s environment, international current affairs does continue to struggle to find an audience.  He pointed to Vice News, which was heralded as an example of how reporting a breadth of stories could be commercially successful, but then went bust.

Finishing the debate on a positive note, Secunder said the advantage of switching to a digital environment is the ability to reach a global audience.  He told us, “Tapping into new audiences, particularly in the Global South that are underserved by their own media, feels like you are having an impact in the societies you are reporting on”.

We would like to thank the panel, chair and the audience for a fascinating and challenging discussion.  Please download and share the report ‘Fighting for Space’.

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