Complaints, content regulation and media convergence in the UK

During 2011/12, I’ll be working (among other things) on a project on media content regulation in the UK, with a particular focus on complaints about broadcasting.  It’s funded by the British Academy Small Grants scheme, and I’ll share further information once it is up and running.  The project includes analysis of decisions (with the help of a research assistant), interviews, and historical/archive work.  Here’s the abstract:

Despite the changes brought about in relation to technological convergence, the proliferation of television channels and the availability of content on the Internet, content regulation remains an important issue for much of the UK media. The point of entry for legal scholarship in this area tends to be the overarching statutory controls (e.g. the passing of the Communications Act 2003) or human rights law (the consequences of licensing or prior scrutiny, the impact of controversial decisions on freedom of expression). This study is an attempt to consider, with a particular view to the apparent changes in the media industries and in audience behaviour, the real impact of content regulation in situations where it is more routine (and less dramatic) than the occasional but well-scrutinised times when Parliament assesses principles or a court reviews a particular determination. At a time when diverse laws are under review, this work would contribute, through analysis of decisions in particular, to a debate of wider public interest, informed by scholarship in media/cultural studies.

Getting it wrong

Understandably, discussing ‘the media’ on television or radio can be quite difficult – in practice, the producers and presenters will find themselves discussing their own owners and colleagues on a regular basis. (Editors and reporters on media sections of print publications face similar difficulties, of course). The format can be particularly useful (discussing TV techniques or editorial choices by showing clips and discussing them is an obvious example), but can also be limiting.

I think that there are two tests that a broadcast programme on media affairs must meet:

(a) does it address the activities of its own channel (or corporate/organisational) group in a frank and fair way, and
(b) does it present enough information through extracts (clips from the programmes or services being discussed, etc) to inform the audience, without being a fig-leaf for shock value.

The programmes I particular admire are, unsurprisingly, on the radio: I regularly listen to the new Media Show on BBC Radio 4, NPR’s On The Media and the Guardian’s Media Podcast, each platform perhaps representing a different era of radio history. A good example of ‘new media criticism’ comes from two services of the CBC that I have mentioned in these pages before: Search Engine and Spark – using podcasting and blogging in a very effective fashion (although occasionally the enthusiasm for new services and playing down of ‘old media’ is a bit much for my sceptical ears). Their respective presenters – Jesse Brown and Nora Young – are pioneers in an emerging form of blended, wide-ranging media analysis, and I find the programmes both influential and provocative.

I was very disappointed to see ITV’s ‘Tonight: Is TV Too Rude?‘, broadcast in January but only watched by me a few days ago. Based on my entirely arbitrary rules, it failed. The hook of the programme was presenting seven ‘clips’ to a focus group, and allowing them to discuss. However, of the seven, four were from the BBC, two from Channel 4 and one from ITV itself. The clips were heavily censored for broadcast (the show went out at 8.30pm), including lengthy cuts and bleeping. It was not sensible to broadcast the show in this slot – it made the criticism meaningless and they may as well have not bothered with the clips at all. Anyway, see for yourself – UK users should be able to watch it via ITV Player, for a limited period.

I have higher hopes for a new BBC2 series that starts this week, a three-part special edition of the Money Programme, Media Revolutions, presented by Janet Street-Porter. All things going well, I’ll blog about it once it gets going. Airing on Thursdays and available online after broadcast. The Channel 4 TV Show is due back on air next month, too.

The Mace

A minor story that emerged (perhaps a tangent to a tangent?) from last week’s announcement regarding the expansion of London Heathrow Airport caught my attention. As the matter was being discussed in the House of Commons, Labour MP John McDonnell, an opponent of the plan (and representative for one of the local constituencies), after arguing that there should be a vote in Parliament on whether to proceed (with the delicious flourish: ‘Will there be a vote, and why not?‘, listened to the reply, interrupted, rose from his seat and, walking down the steps, grabbed the mace (an important constitutional feature, the symbol of royal authority and of Parliament being in session : explained here) and placed it on a bench.

At least, I think that’s what happened. See, if you look at it in Hansard (here, at column 367(, the official record, all we get is this:

Mr. Hoon: […] Necessarily, when judgments have to be made about the interests of the country, those decisions have to be made, however difficult they are— [ Interruption. ]
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) must— [Interruption.]
John McDonnell , Member for Hayes and Harlington , having conducted himself in a grossly disorderly manner, was named by the Deputy Speaker.

So how do I know that he picked up the club-like shiny thing and carried it away? Well, I saw it, on videos like this one from the BBC. (Do go watch it). And here’s another from Sky News. However, if the BBC and other broadcasters had been following the rules (read them here) in relation to parliamentary coverage, they should not have shown the incident, but cut away as soon as possible. We would have relied instead on neither the official record nor the video, but on written newspaper reports (like this charming one in the New York Times or this colourful one in the Times). Don’t forget that there are no photo-cameras in the Commons, so newspapers take their pictures from TV stills. Indeed, as confirmed in this PA report, officials in the House of Commons are unhappy about the broadcast and rebroadcast of the offending footage and are considering further action.

Frankly, I find this all a bit silly. I can appreciate that the official record might be rather terse (Hansard does represent a cleaned-up version of proceedings), but the broadcasting rules are beyond ludicrous and should be reassessed. As it happens, this is the first time since TV broadcasting began that the Mace has been interfered with, and I’m glad that the events were captured and broadcast. Like it or not, what happened happened, and requiring camera operators to collaborate in a silly game of hide-and-seek is unnecessary. I can understand how there can be practices like not showing streakers at sporting events (as the coverage may just encourage others), and I can see how there may have been some concern in the early days of parliamentary broadcasting that the cameras would encourage members to behave irresponsibly, but let’s face it, politicians are perfectly able to make a fool of themselves even when their interventions are in order! Parliament, including MPs acting out of order, is of genuine interest to the public. Indeed, parliamentary protest, whether it be filibustering, procedural tricks, silent protests or, yes, mace-manhandling, has a long tradition. Now that we take it for granted that the unedited words of members are broadcast (meaning that there is already an inconsistency between Hansard and the viewing experience), bowdlerising the TV feed (and it’s one set of cameras that everyone uses) for this particular reason is unnecessary. This is of course not the only restriction – there are lots of other rules about reaction shots and cutaways and close-ups that are supposedly designed to protect the dignity of Parliament – but I think dignity, in this case, is something that is primarily the duty of the members of Parliament (who are not unwilling to engage in undignified behaviour, cameras or no cameras). There does need to be a balance – but a more sensible balance – between preventing misleading or sensationalised coverage on one hand and creating a deliberately false image on the other. The present rules do not strike that balance.

The model I’d prefer has been referred to as the ‘gallery surrogate’ model (supported by the BBC as discussed here), where the general intention is to produce a video feed that is, more or less, similar to what someone sitting in the gallery would see. (The Scottish Parliament apparently does it this way). Given the technological resources available to us, this is certainly easier than it would have been in the past, but more importantly, there is a strong argument for it based on accountability – the reason for gallery access is to allow the citizen to watch their laws being made, warts and all. Extending that gallery perspective to citizens who, for whatever reason, cannot attend in person, is valuable. The cameras are already in the Chamber, so it’s not like the televising-trials debate, where the principle of televising is not established.

At the last review of the broadcasting rules, the relevant committee (Broadcasting) found the following:

In the event of disorder in the Chamber the rules of coverage state that the television director should normally focus on the Chair. We feel that this should remain the case and that the reaction of the Member being reprimanded or that of other Members present should not be shown. If the television director were to cut away from the Speaker, there is a risk that statements with procedural significance could be missed.

I don’t really find that the most persuasive of arguments, especially given the ability of most half-decent directors to combine video and audio. It’s not rocket science.

End rant. If you’re interested in the background to the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings in the UK, there’s a wonderful history here, prepared by the House of Commons Information Office.

January Futures: Music

This is the first in a series of posts, pointing to some views on the perennial ‘future of’ debates that make up so much of what I read. No intention to be comprehensive or even-handed – these are, borrowing Eoin Purcell’s term, links of interest (at least to me), and I’d be grateful to read other perspectives in the comments.

Anyway, the first is the ‘future of recorded music’, on which I’ve seen three overlapping contributions of late (and have one whimsical remark of my own). By coincidence (or perhaps not), two are by people I have mentioned in past posts (Drummond, Adams) primarily in their capacities as artists rather than analysts, and thus they have been particularly interesting to think about wearing my (slightly more) serious hat.

On Radio 3 last week, Bill Drummond (wiki; latest project, The17) spoke about the end of recorded music (and the continuing life of live music), also answering questions from a studio audience (part of the Free Thinking festival) on a wide range of topics. It was an utterly fascinating talk, well handled by Radio 3, written up reverently in the Guardian, and absolutely a recommended listen. You should be able to listen to it here, including outside the UK, but only until mid-week (if you want to keep it for posterity, you don’t need me to tell you how to do that). I’m not even going to begin to write a summary, as Drummond operates at approximately one new idea per second…

John Adams‘ recent autobiography, Hallelujah Junction : Composing An American Life, includes a useful chapter on technology and music (and reveals that his son introduced him to Aphex Twin – what I wouldn’t give to see that collaboration). Reflecting on the evolution of classical music recordings and also the on-stage use of electronic instruments, Adams highlights the difficulties and opportunities of each new technological wave. He’s critical of some aspects of the use of technology in live performance, but also adamant (sorry) that there are advantages to synthesisers, sound design, amplification, microtonal pitches. (Chapter 10, Machine In The Garden).

The New York Times wrote last month about an intriguing little iPhone / iPod Touch application, Tap Tap Revenge. Essentially Dance Dance Revolution with fingers instead of feet (or Guitar Hero without the guitar), I’ve had it for a few months, and seeing it break through to mainstream attention came as a bit of a surprise, as I hadn’t initially thought about it as a significant development. One thing about it that raises a load of policy issues is how the application is being used as a way to promote new music – as well as the preset songs, new songs (along with various tie-ins and promotions) are made available on a regular basis. I’ve discovered a few bands through it, although the quality is a bit up and down (there’s a new electronica-specific one, Tap Tap Dance, that I’ve yet to try, but is obviously more targeted at a particular audience). One debate I have an interest in is the ‘shelfspace’ one that has been an enduring feature of Canadian broadcasting policy – so for example, Canadian music quotas for pop radio in one era becomes a percentage of available and featured titles in video-on-demand systems. Seeing alternative channels open up like this is an interesting way to revisit those questions. It’s also interesting when you see the difficulties that music retail stores (like poor Zavvi) have encountered.

On a personal note: Apple’s decision to go DRM-free, announced at Macworld (nearly two years after Thoughts On Music), is something I’ve waited for for a while. Despite having used an iPod (and a series of Macs) for a long time, my practice has continued to be purchasing CDs (far too many) and format-shifting, in most cases (which the Gowers Review said should be legal, good news to George W Bush of course). I appreciate I’m not the typical consumer here, having an interest in the legal dimension, but DRM-free iTunes is the kind of thing that will have a real, measurable impact on my own purchasing habits.

Next week: Television