How television can civilise the national debate
Speech by Lord Grade to Royal Television Society
Yesterday’s strapline was ‘The Fight For Attention’. So, in a bid for yours I make the shocking admission that I never used to like regulators…
My antipathy stemmed from that long-gone, patrician age of broadcast regulation when, believe it or not, the Independent Broadcasting Authority was the publisher-in-law of everything we transmitted on ITV – a last hangover from establishment control of arts and information.
The low point came at a meeting chaired by Lady Plowden, IBA patrician-in-chief. The assembled top brass of 15 ITV companies sat aghast as she demanded that Crossroads, the UK’s most popular soap, be removed from the schedules. It occupied the top five ratings slots each week, but it was not a show the members of the great and the good could be proud of at their dinner soirées.
Lord Windlesham, MD of the producing company Central TV, pressed for her reasoning. Eventually she conceded, and I quote verbatim: “The Authority finds it distressingly popular”.
Well, just as technology has moved us on exponentially, I am happy to report that broadcasting regulation has also moved with the times. So I am proud and privileged to speak to you now as the chair of Ofcom, at an important moment in its history.
A safer life online
Right now, Ofcom is gearing up for a new challenge. Under the Government’s Online Safety Bill – among the first laws of their kind in the world – we will be given new powers to hold some of the world’s biggest and most powerful tech companies to account.
Our research shows people are increasingly concerned about harmful online content – both for themselves, and for their children. There is an urgent need for sensible, balanced rules that protect users from serious harm.
These plans have not been without their critics, in Parliament and elsewhere. Some say Ofcom won’t have an impact. That a regulator in the UK cannot change the behaviour of global tech giants; or that the volume of online harm is just too great to tackle.
Others say the Bill will have too much impact, by stifling freedom of expression.
Let me respond, starting with free speech. After all, that is the heartbeat of the internet. At Ofcom, we have 20 years’ experience of preserving it across broadcasting.
Just look at the numbers. Last year, we assessed more than 11,000 pieces of TV and radio content. After taking account of freedom of expression, we found only 29 in breach of our rules. Often, those were very serious matters such as hate speech or incitement to murder. So Ofcom is not a regulator that intervenes in legitimate debate.
What about the volume of harm? Clearly, we must be realistic. It would be impossible to attempt to assess content as we do in TV and radio. In the few minutes that I’ve been speaking, around three thousand hours of video have been uploaded to YouTube alone.
Even if we could regulate every piece of harmful content, we’d only be treating the symptoms of online harm. Parliament correctly wants us to get to the cause, by shining a light on the decisions companies take in designing and operating their services.
The Bill lays the burden on platforms to reduce harm. So we want to shift their mindset. We need a new era of accountability, where companies have to prioritise trust and safety alongside clicks and profit. We know that many services take steps to protect their users. But these initiatives have not been sufficient to restore people’s trust and confidence.
Over time, big tech firms must shift their regulatory responsibilities from the public policy departments – where they sit today – to the front-line staff responsible for designing and operating their products.
At the moment, I see the world of online regulation being accepted and well understood by those whose job it is to worry about such things – namely the policy and strategy teams.
"Over time, big tech firms must shift their regulatory responsibilities from the public policy departments to the front-line staff"
But, like bankers who think their compliance department belongs to a galaxy far, far away, those who design and operate the tech platforms are not routinely touched by safety regulations. Under the planned laws, Ofcom will have powers to summon people with day-to-day responsibility for users’ safety on the sites and apps themselves. This represents a very meaningful, overdue shift in the regulatory culture of big tech.
Now, all of this will take time. There is no magic switch to be flicked, as the Bill becomes an Act; no miracle cure for the internet’s every ill.
But I believe, over time, the search engines and social media apps people use today will be made safer. And the industry will need to hone a culture of responsibility towards its users.
As the current inquest into Molly Russell’s tragic death reminds us, this is an urgent task. We are not waiting for Royal Assent to get ready. Rather, we have spent the last two years preparing. Ofcom is hiring expert minds from across the tech industry. We’ve built on our existing skill base by recruiting talent from Meta, Google and Amazon, academia and the policy world.
We’ve established a data innovation unit, and a tech hub in Manchester. We have published world-leading research about online harm and how it might be addressed – from risk in algorithm design to the use of AI in content moderation. Just last week we explored research models for assessing online harm. This autumn, we’ll release studies on age protection, risks to children, hashing technology, online terrorism and hate speech. We will also publish our forensic analysis of the online response to the Buffalo shooting.
All that research is helping to form an expert evidence base. It will also help us anticipate change and respond to a fast-moving market.
Just think… A couple of Christmases ago, as the Government was confirming the online safety plans to Parliament, two French entrepreneurs were launching BeReal. As you’ll know, this platform lacks the conflict and curation of some other social media. Now it has topped Apple’s app chart, as part of a cultural shift in how younger people want to use social media.
So there are signs that users are tired of the endless pressures of self-presentation. Or maybe, like me, they’re concerned by the tone of interaction and debate on social media.
Can online communities become more tolerant of diverging views, more open-minded to change? These are bigger questions, which surpass the role of any regulator. Yet they affect us all, and the answers may determine the future role of our traditional media sector.
Civilising the debate
I believe the tone of social discourse online reflects the polarisation of wider society. What were once civilised, legitimate debates about politics, society and culture are now escalated and characterised as culture wars. Traditionalist and progressive groups are locked in a seemingly endless struggle to impose their beliefs, their values, their vocabulary. Important but divisive issues – from Brexit to Covid restrictions or personal rights – have become angry battlefields of bitter division.
Now I have had arguments all my life with politicians. I might confess to some of them being even heated. But when these important debates cross the line, when they are conducted with aggression, prejudice or a tone that borders on the hateful, we all stand to lose.
When they are debated instead – yes, with passion – but also with respect and an open mind, we can bring people together and find answers that help us move forward. I myself have learned, in debates in the House of Lords, that tone is everything. Politeness gets you a hearing; angry, intolerant argument gets you nowhere. As Rory Stewart observes in his recent Radio 4 series, we have lost the art of civilised debate.
Why does this matter to Ofcom? Here, I want to be very clear: Ofcom does not, and should not, regulate the culture wars. Some try to conscript us to their cause. But we’re not interested. That is not our job. Whether we are judging that Piers Morgan’s comments about the Duchess of Sussexwere justified by freedom of expression, or that Diversity’s tribute to the Black Lives Movement (PDF, 208.6 KB) was too – we never make decisions based on personal preference, political pressure, fear or favour.
Instead, we all leave our various opinions at the door. We focus on the legal framework and duties given to us by Parliament, and make careful, balanced decisions based on the evidence. For the same reason, we should not seek to regulate the tone of debate on social media, either now or through our new duties.
"Ofcom never makes decisions based on personal preference, political pressure, fear or favour"
Nonetheless, I care on a personal level – as I’m sure you do too – about the need for tolerant debate. That matters to me not just as a citizen and Parliamentarian, but also as somebody who has sought to champion our world-class broadcasting sector. Because broadcasting has a unique ability to provide a fair, accurate and trustworthy platform for calm, considered voices. Those views are more necessary than ever for a stable society and a strong democracy.
So, we need ‘due impartiality’; but we also need trust. In other words, perceptions of impartiality matter too. And our latest research shows they could be stronger. Around six in ten trust TV news– a little higher for Sky News, at seven in ten.
Why aren’t all our broadcasters doing even better on this measure?
Impartiality is a hugely complex area. Ofcom’s research shows that many factors influence people’s perceptions here, including how strongly they feel about a given issue.
We published some interesting research on impartiality (PDF, 1.1 MB) this summer. It was based on BBC content, but the findings are relevant to all. When participants looked at a news report, their impressions of due impartiality were often based on signals around how it was presented, such as the presenter’s tone.
Just as on social media, tone matters. We all want television – and indeed radio – journalists to do what they do best: hold people to account, cross examine their motives and test their views. I believe they can do all of this in a measured manner.
Of course, broadcasters need to find an audience for their content on social media. In trying to reach younger people, who watch seven times less linear TV than over-65s, clicks might matter more than viewership.
But in the fight for attention, traditional broadcasters will never match social media’s capacity for the shrill and the shocking. Nor should they try. Instead, we look to them for calm, forensic analysis and interrogation.
The facts, then, will speak for themselves. Falsity, contradiction and hypocrisy will still be exposed. Viewers and listeners can, and will, make up their own minds.
More than that, audiences may be less inclined to question the motives of the interviewer, or the impartiality of the channel. In that way, our broadcasters can strengthen their own reputations, while helping to civilise the national debate.
I hope this will be taken in the right way: as an observation from someone who cares deeply about our broadcasting industry, and who spent many decades in our public service broadcasting (PSB) sector. I appreciate its values and its value.
Which brings me to one final question.
How should we, as a nation, best arrange the PSB system to sustain its future over the next decade?
The future of PSB
Well, before I joined Ofcom, or even thought about applying, I was never shy about expressing views on this. But personal opinions – especially mine – are not the currency of Ofcom’s work. Our role is to provide research and evidence, to adapt our regulation and to inform Parliament about policy options and their impact.
Some aspects of PSB are currently up for debate. There are long-term questions to answer: BBC funding, Channel 4 ownership, and how legislation might level the playing field where PSBs compete with US streamers. These are matters for Government and Parliament, not Ofcom.
But one thing we can all agree. The creative industries sector is one of the great British success stories of the last 50 years. Our industry talent – from chippies, to grips, screen writers, designers, make-up, special effects, directors and actors – are in demand all over the world, through recession and pandemic.
British viewers and listeners enjoy a rich and varied diet of British-made programmes. As Ofcom found in our review last year, Small Screen: Big Debate, the strength of our traditional broadcasters lies in their ability to do something US platforms often cannot: to appeal to people from all backgrounds, to reach and serve all parts of the UK. PSB is the place where culture meets commerce. We must never forget the cultural importance of its heritage.
"The creative industries sector is one of the great British success stories of the last 50 years"
And while the industry has more to do on diversity – most particularly behind the camera – on screen we have made wonderful progress since I started in broadcasting.
For all these reasons, any proposed changes to our PSB arrangements must be tested against their potential impact on investment in our creative industries. Quite simply, these achievements have been a triumph of public policy. We must do nothing to put them at risk. I am certain Parliament will have that in mind as it reviews the current arrangements.
Policymakers must learn from history. I hope we all remember the lessons of the Competition Commission’s decision, in 2009, not to allow PSBs to launch the joint ‘Kangaroo’ streaming service. It’s my view that this myopic misjudgement handed the valuable streaming market to the USA on a regulatory plate.
Since then, US streamers have transformed and captured the UK market. Online platforms are reshaping the way we discover and consume content, providing unprecedented choice, but also making it harder for home content providers to compete.
So we have been working with the Commission’s successor, the Competition and Markets Authority, on a new Code of Practice, including some basic rules on the relationship with publishers. The aim is to help ensure the trading relationship between big online platforms and publishers is fair and reasonable. This will complement our work on media plurality, where we consider the breadth of UK news providers.
In short, there is work to do – but I am optimistic for the future.
The Government has heard our recommendations, and the Media Bill provides the opportunity to define a new future for public service broadcasting. Ofcom will lend clear evidence and analysis to the debate, examining the market and using our competition powers to intervene where necessary.
And we will keep working with you to secure the industry.
On my watch, Ofcom will strive to maintain its reputation, above all, for political independence; for decisions and judgements based on evidence and research. And we will continue our work to promote growth, competition and investment, while ensuring that audiences are rewarded, and – especially during current times – that services remain affordable.
No other country can match the talent, creativity and heritage of our broadcasting sector. To all of you who work in it, my message is that you can thrive by focusing on your strengths: making outstanding programmes for UK audiences, and bringing calm impartiality to the national debate. In those respects, we have never needed you more.
So thank you, RTS, for this invitation, and thank you for listening. I just hope I got the tone right!
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