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Media Act comes into force, but without assurances for religious broadcasting

31 May 2024

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THE Media Bill is now an Act of Parliament, after it was pushed through its final stages in the House of Lords last week, despite concerns over its lack of protections for religious programming. It gained Royal Assent last Friday.

The Act legislates how the public-service remit is to be fulfilled to meet the needs and satisfy the interests of as many different audiences as practicable.

The previous remit of the networks defined as public-service broadcasters (PSBs) — the BBC channels, Channels 3, 4, and 5, and the Welsh-language TV channel S4C — was to provide a range of high-quality and diverse programming which included “education, sport, science, religion and other beliefs, social issues, and matters of international significance or interest”.

The Media Act replaces this with a less specific obligation to provide “a sufficient quantity of audiovisual content that reflects the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions” in the UK.

The absence of a reference to religion in the legislation has caused disquiet since a draft Bill was first published last year (News, 14 April 2023). Concerns have also been raised that it gives broadcasters more freedom to move programmes to digital formats where the audiences will be smaller (Comment, 19 January).

After the Bill was approved by the Commons on Thursday of last week, Dr Tony Stoller, who chairs the Sandford St Martin Trust, said that, while the modernisation of broadcasting legislation was welcome, the new remit was “too vague to be enforceable, and fails to indicate what a ‘sufficient’ quantity is”.

He also asked, “how, without targets, quotas, or clear obligations around genres, the Government proposes the quality and quantity of PSB provision will be assessed?”

Dr Stoller continued: “The Sandford St Martin Trust has long argued that to ignore religion is to leave a gaping hole at the heart of public-service broadcasting. For this reason, it is essential that the Government ensures that the sustainability of this important genre is at the heart of the process of modernising broadcasting legislation and the future of Public Service Broadcasting.”

In a joint interview with the Church Times last month, the Head of Religion and Ethics for BBC Audio, Tim Pemberton, and his counterpart for television, Daisy Scalchi, addressed some of these concerns, saying that the BBC would still be accountable to Ofcom, which requires the BBC to broadcast about 200 hours a year of religious content on TV, and 500 hours on radio (News, 3 May).

During the Bill’s Committee Stage earlier last week, the Bishop of Newcastle, Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, spoke in support of including quotas in the Bill to ensure that a fixed percentage of broadcast output by PSBs had to be produced outside London.

“Our country is one of diversity,” Dr Hartley told peers. “As public-service broadcasters are owned by the whole of the UK public, it is important that they truly reflect the public they serve in all their regional diversity.”

Ensuring support for the creative sector outside London “requires intentionality”, Dr Hartley said. “New and smaller production companies cannot grow without regular and sustained employment. Implementing quotas would ensure that these businesses receive regular income in the longer term, allowing them to grow while nurturing local talent and skills.”

Dr Hartley argued that requiring PSBs to produce 50 per cent of their programmes outside London, and 16 per cent outside England, in proportion to each UK nation’s relative population, would spread opportunity across the country’s regions. “The different regions and nations throughout the UK are rich in creative skills, and we are all left poorer if we continue to neglect them.”

After discussion, however, Baroness Fraser of Craigmaddie, who had proposed the amendment containing the percentages, withdrew it, on the basis that the Government had offered further discussions on regional programme-making with Ofcom.

Late in the debate, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke on an amendment to the legislation tabled by Lady Grey-Thompson, which proposed that “significant” prominence rather than “appropriate” prominence be given to PSBs, to ensure that streaming services are not able to promote their own content at the expense of the PSBs.

Bishop Baines said that he supported the argument, but not the point of language. He asked: “Why is ‘significant’ an improvement on ‘appropriate’, when neither of them are defined? ‘Significant’ has to mean significant of something — we might think that it just means ‘a lot’, but it does not. It is as meaningless as ‘appropriate’: indefinable and cannot be quantified.”

He admitted that it was difficult to find a suitable alternative. “I have struggled with it, but ‘substantial’ or ‘substantive’ might get us somewhere, rather than something that does not actually mean anything,” he said.

The amendment was not moved. The Bill was sent to the Commons with approved amendments. The Commons agreed to these changes, and the Bill received Royal Assent on 24 May.

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