Written evidence submitted by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ)




NUJ submission to the DCMS committee inquiry into public service broadcasting

June 2020



1.      The NUJ supports a vibrant, creative and well-funded public service broadcasting (PSB) sector which is accessible and affordable and reflects the interests of the public it serves. All democracies require balanced, impartial news coverage which do not depend on the personal prejudices and foibles of media moguls, commercial pressure to appease shareholders or government interference.  A functioning democracy cannot exist without a plural, trusted and vigorous media; the UK’s PSBs should provide the bedrock for this.

2.      The NUJ accepts the purposes of PSB under the Communications Act 2003: to inform our understanding of the world; to stimulate interest in knowledge of the arts, science, history and other topics; to reflect our cultural identity through original programming; and to represent diversity and alternative points of view. PSB programmes should be trustworthy, innovative, challenging, of high quality, well-funded and original with new UK content.

3.      The present Covid-19 crisis has shown just how vital it is for people to have trusted, reliable news sources; and it was to the BBC and other PSBs they turned to. With social media awash with dangerous misinformation such as the conspiracy theories linking the coronavirus to 5G mobile networks and anti-vaccination campaigns, the regulated PSB broadcast sector provided an essential bulwark. People who relied on social media for information about coronavirus were more likely to believe conspiracy theories and breach lockdown rules, according to a study by carried out by King’s College London and Ipsos Mori based on surveys of 2,254 UK residents aged between 16 and 75. “Our findings suggest that social media use is linked both to false beliefs about Covid-19 and to failure to follow the clear-cut rules of the lockdown,” said Dr Daniel Allington, senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London. The study found that more than one in 20 believed the 5G network story and of those who did 60 per cent said they got their information from YouTube.

4.      As the BBC is soon about to celebrate its 100th birthday, it has shown it was able to rise to the challenge of Covid-19. The corporation said it would postpone the planned £40m cuts and redundancies in news and the introduction of licence-fee payments for the over-75s. BBC local radio launched a Make A Difference campaign, which has led to 800,000 listeners getting in touch to offer help to their communities. The BBC opened its PSB offering beyond increased news coverage by using the One Show to include health and well-being advice alongside keeping fit and healthy eating tips. Its BBC Food website provided collections of recipes especially for older people, and for low-income families. It offered families forced to school their children from home more BBC Bitesize content and a daily educational programme for different key stages or year. It broadcast religious services. It increased its offering on iPlayer to entertain families stuck in at home. BBC Culture in Quarantine provides a rich offering of online arts, music and theatre. This is public sector broadcasting at its best. But the BBC faces financial free-fall; the Covid-19 crisis alone has cost it £125million. Northern Ireland needs to save £3.6million which will equate to between 30 and 40 post closures, fewer resources being spent on the 10.30pm bulletin and watered-down coverage of party conferences. Scotland needs to save £6.2million, of which £3.5-4million would come from staffing, the equivalent of around 60 posts. Wales has already delivered £6million of savings over the past 3 years, partly due to a move to new premises, but still needs to save another £4.5million; that’s 60 posts in 2021/22. The figures for England are not yet known but are expected to be substantial. The corporation has called on all staff to consider applying for voluntary redundancy.  Announcing the redundancies call, Lord Hall, director general, said the BBC now had 24 per cent less to spend on its UK public services than if the licence fee had risen with inflation over the past decade.

5.      Channel 4, which relies for almost all its income from advertising faces a bleak future. While viewers have lately flocked to the PSBs, including ITV, advertising revenue has shrunk.  Media analysts Enders said: “Journalism is on the precipice with more than £1 billion likely to fall off the industry’s top line. Several years of projected structural revenue decline in advertising and circulation have occurred in just the past few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, with no let-up in sight.” In terms of broadcasting it said: “Flexibility is built into some types of programming, however nothing can replace live sport, while disruption in the production of scripted programming—especially high-volume soaps—will have knock-on effects that continue for years.” The reduced revenues will inevitably have an impact on news budgets. ITV is reducing its £1.1bn programming outlay by at least £100m, while C4’s £650m annual spend is to fall by £150m. C5 also announced it would be slashing programming investment because of the advertising downturn. A report in the Financial Times (June 23) said that television advertising was expected to fall 17.6 per cent in 2020 and rise 6 per cent in 2021, according to media investment company GroupM. It quoted one senior executive at a big advertising holding company saying there were fundamental shifts in the market, particularly for television. “This shock may do for free-to-air broadcast television what the financial crisis did for newspaper advertising,” they said. “It never recovered for newspapers. The question is how can broadcasters stop that from happening to them.”


Regulation: Are the current regulations and obligations placed on PSBs, in return for benefits such as prominence and public funding, proportionate? What (if any regulation) should be introduced for SVoDs and other streaming services?


6.      Many of the present regulations date back decades and were established at a time when there was limited choice. However, looking specifically at news it is paramount that all public service broadcasters, with national coverage on TV, should continue to be required to produce a minimum number of hours of high-quality news and factual programming. 

7.      The union has concerns over the record of the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom. Experience has shown it to be a light-touch regulator. It has a record for accepting requests for reduced hours of regional news. The NUJ took issue with its decision to allow ITV local news to be reduced by one-third in its latest 10-year broadcast licences for ITV, STV, UTV and Channel 5. Ofcom did nothing when ITV slashed its current affairs coverage, including World in Action.

8.      Television is a highly regulated medium and this regulation is in recognition of its important role in providing information and shaping opinions. It helps provide the gold standard of PSB and sets it apart from the Wild West of the internet and platforms such as Facebook. Comparisons with Netflix and the BBC and other PSB broadcasters are specious. They are competitors, but Netflix is a debt-laden American organisation which does not produce news or investigative journalism.  Netflix makes some good programmes, but the reason why PSB should maintain their prominence, for example on the electronic programme guide, is because they perform a public function. In most cases they have earned their place, at least on the grounds of providing trusted programming. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Digital News Report 2020  shows the level of trust of news organisations: BBC News 64%; ITV News 60%; Financial Times 58%; local or regional newspaper 55%; Guardian 54%; Channel 4 News 53%; Sky News 53%; Independent 49%; The Times 44%; The Daily Telegraph 31%, the Sun 16%. 

9.      The lax regulation of the provision of local radio station news has led to its virtual demise. In 2019, Global Radio replaced the 40-plus local breakfast shows across its Capital, Smooth and Heart networks with just three nationwide programmes hosted from London. Bauer is folding almost 50 regional radio outlets into a national network. Dozens more towns and cities across England will lose their own distinctive local radio stations later this year, with stations such as York’s Minster FM and the West Midlands’ Signal 107 being replaced with largely syndicated programmes made in London, hundreds of miles from the communities they serve. Radio mainly affects only the BBC in terms of true "public service" - but there was been a long tradition of the regulator requiring news content on commercial stations. In particular there should be a need for meaningful local or regional news content where licence areas have been merged. Local radio comes into its own during crises such as Covig-19 or floods when they provide literally a live-saving service for local communities. But local radio is also there for when the sun is shining, connecting people in their county or region; for many lonely people, local radio is their friend.

10.  SvOD and streaming services are different in their nature, namely that the method of distribution is usually a single product rather than, say, local or regional variations. Any services funded by public money must demonstrate a certain level of quality and where providing factual content, this should be broadly regulated along the same lines as linear broadcasting. In particular the principles of due impartiality should be a cornerstone, to avoid these services being open to abuse by political or partisan groups. Measures should be taken to levy SVod services in order to provide funds for the making of PSB content or to require that a proportion of their output confirms to PSB obligations.

Representation: How would representation be protected if changes were made to the PSB model? How would the nations and regions be affected by changes to the PSB model? Is the 'quota' system the most efficient way to maintain and improve representation in broadcasting?   


11.  Linking in with Impact (below), PSBs provide an important outlet for showcasing diversity across the UK. This comes in many forms, for example, giving coverage to a wide range of regional, cultural, and socio-economic viewpoints. BBC Scotland launched in February 2019, broadcasting every evening with a focus on Scottish programming. Operating Licences for present PSB providers carry quotas for some of these areas, which are able to be measured by the regulator. Ofcom’s  February 2020 report Small Screen: Big Debate – a five-year review of Public Service Broadcasting (2014-18) noted the BBC was more broadly considered to have a white, middle-class, South-East England bias; that is why quotas are needed and PSBs must be accountable and put under scrutiny.

12.  Quotas should be the baseline minimum to ensure all broadcasters meet public service obligations. They must be specific about the kind and quality of programming required. Where public money is used to fund services, they should properly reflect the lives of the communities they serve. It should reflect the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions from across the UK. PSB needs to reflect the range of opinion in society on matters of social, economic and cultural debate.  In terms of news and current affairs, this means allocating proper grassroots resources for quality journalism.

13.  Currently there are concerns that the BBC wants to produce less regional TV in order to save money, with the current affairs series Inside Out and the Sunday politics shows due for cuts. The BBC should be forced to consult over any proposals to cut local programming and should not be allowed to shrink back into London and ignore the Nations and Regions as it attempts to cuts its budget as a consequence of Covid-19. The threat to the shows comes despite a pledge by the BBC to have two-thirds of its staff working outside London by the end of this decade.

14.  Ofcom has said that PSBs should support a tolerant society through the availability of programmes which reflect the lives of different people and communities within the UK: “This will encourage a better understanding of different cultures and views and sometimes bring the nation together for shared experiences.” The present polarisation caused issues such as Brexit and the recent highlighting of racism and discrimination shows that funding and regulation to support this vital function of PSBs is needed now as ever before.

15.  Channel Four News has a particular remit to serve under-represented communities. This is particularly important during the current time of Covid-19. Coronavirus has shown it is more important than ever to have a presence around the UK. It has bureaus in Scotland and Wales at a time when there has been a need to focus on the devolved nature of decision making and government. This gives them the ability to highlight good practice, differences with health services and to hold those governments to account.

16.  Ofcom’s report on Channel 4 in February said it had largely met its media content duties between 2014 and 2018 and continued to show a broad range of high-quality programmes, with audiences consistently rating Channel 4 more highly than other PSB services in taking creative risks, as well as in tackling issues that other broadcasters would not, and enabling alternative voices to be heard.  The report said: “The coverage Channel 4 Corporation gave to the UK’s diversity also continued to be a strength, and audiences placed significant value on its news and current affairs output as a trusted and independent take on national and international events. Film4’s approach to investment resulted in commercial success over the review period and generated revenues to support UK talent. The report said Channel 4 News was the most highly regarded TV news provider across the two metrics: 84 per cent of its regular viewers regarded it as being independent from the government, and 77 per cent of regular viewers agreed that it is independent from the influence of big businesses.  In April Channel 4 announced it would be cutting its programming budget by £150m and furloughing almost 100 staff as it fights to survive the impact of the coronavirus crisis. Channel 4’s £1.1billion revenues depend almost entirely on advertising; it said it faced a revenue slump of 50 per cent over the next two months. The special place Channel 4 has in terms of the nations and regions, but specifically in its remit to reach out to under-represented communities, younger people and to produce challenging programming will be put under threat.

17.  The BBC had already been required to provide the majority of S4C's funding, following a drastic cut in the finance provided by the DCMS to the Welsh-language free-to-air television channel. The net affect has been to cut nearly £20 million from S4C's annual budget over the past decade. The remaining UK government funding, worth £7million a year, will end in 2022 and funding will be transferred to the BBC. The NUJ’s Welsh Executive Council (WEC) said: “It is essential that this money is replaced as further budget cuts would inevitably undermine S4C's credibility with its audience. Programme quality will suffer and the already excessive number of repeats would rise further. The WEC is under no illusion that it will be difficult for the BBC to find the extra money.”

18.  If PSB is to be representative then it needs to create more inclusive governance models. The NUJ believes staff and viewers and listeners should have representation on broadcasters’ boards. PSB staff and management should be representative of the populace they are serving. Public service broadcasters should be open about their recruitment policies and provide data on the diversity of the organisation.

19.  The media landscape is no longer restricted to large, established outlets such as the BBC and Channel 4. Consideration should be given to forming community partnerships, with companies joining up with local news enterprises, offering training and opportunities to have their work showcased on air. Such partnerships, managed and regulated sensibly, would help to increase the range of views and people represented in output.   


Accessibility: How would changes to the PSB model affect the accessibility of services? How would an internet-based service compare to the current PSB model?


20.  The NUJ would be concerned if the BBC or ITV decided to move their regional news services online only. While it can be argued that audiences for traditional, linear news services are declining, there is still a huge digital divide in the UK, where many low income households and older or vulnerable groups do not necessarily have the means to access fully fledged online services, eg video on demand. PSB should be protected and be accessible to all. According to the digital inclusion charity Good Things Foundation, 11.3 million people in the UK do not have the basic digital skills they need to thrive in today’s world and 1.9 million households have no access to the internet. Research in the Office for National Statistics paper Exploring the UK’s digital divide found that in 2018 there were still 5.3 million adults in the UK, or 10 per cent of the adult UK population were described as “internet non-users” as they had never used the internet or not used it in the past three months. The same paper found that across all age groups, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users. Many parts of the UK, particularly rural areas, have patchy or no broadband.

21.  According to Ofcom, we still watch, on average, over three hours of live broadcast TV each day and over half of that is to the PSB channels. However, PSBs such the BBC and Channel Four News have embraced the benefits of digital services in recent years. Online services allow them to put up longer films and extra background information to supplement and enhance their linear news services. It is vital in order to maintain universality in PSB, that high quality broadband is made universally available. Any public digital media system would need to be underpinned by guarantee of full-fibre broadband to all households.

22.  The present crisis has moved many organisations, including the media, down the digital track. But it PSB cannot be defined by the technology. The BBC’s remit to inform, educate, entertain and its overall ethos must be universal and operate on a variety of platforms. An internet-based PSB would soon find itself becoming an anachronism as technology overtook it. 

23.  Channel 4 describes itself as a digital first business, it targets younger audiences through social platforms. In order to address disinformation directly, Channel 4 News' Coronavirus FactCheck had its own website and a presence on social media, addressing key COVID-19 questions, which had more than 1,015,000 page visitors in the six weeks of March and April and Channel 4 News’ videos on COVID-19 had 141 million viewers on YouTube. Reality Check is the BBC’s principal fact-checking service which runs on TV, radio, on the website and via social media. This service tackles fake news stories and challenges statements from public figures and institutions which may be false or misleading and presents the verifiable facts instead. The Ouch podcast, which looks at issues in relation to disabled people, is now twice weekly and focussed on the issues around Covid-19.


Impact: What value, if any, do PSBs bring to the UK in terms of economic (local and national), cultural and societal impact?


24.  Since the end of the Second World War, public service broadcasting has had a long and healthy tradition of covering the whole of the UK and its regions in terms of news, features and fictional programming. Reflecting its diverse communities has given audiences a go to place for trusted news, and a platform to celebrate local life.  In terms of societal impact, PSBs provide services that are accessible to all.  The licence fee enables a universality that is free from commercial or political interference. Broadcasters can do what no newspaper can do. In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having such services, to provide vital information during a national emergency, while holding to account the decision makers. It’s been the PSBs that the public have turned to when they needed trusted information. Across the week beginning 23 March, more than 44 million people in the UK tuned into BBC TV Network News – the highest figure since the 2003 Iraq War.

25.  The BBC generates £2 in economic value for every £1 of the licence fee it receives.  It is responsible for 42 per cent of all investment into original UK TV content; 91 per cent of UK adults use BBC television, radio or online each week. The £157.50 licence fee amount equates to £3.02 a week or £13.13 a month, for which the BBC provides 10 national TV channels plus regional programming; 10 national radio stations; 40 local radio stations plus dedicated Nations radio services; one of the UK’s most popular websites; the radio app BBC Sounds; and BBC iPlayer. In the last financial year 95 per cent of the BBC’s controllable spend went on content for audiences and delivery, with just 5 per cent spent on running the organisation. It also runs the Proms and national orchestras. The BBC won 184 major awards in total, including five Golden Globes and 16 Baftas for shows like Bodyguard and Killing Eve in 2019. The broadcaster is Europe's biggest provider of media and creative skills training More than 426 million people access the BBC around the world each week (including World Service, Worldwide and Global News; Blue Planet II reached three quarters of a billion people.

26.  At present BBC licence fee money is being used to prop up commercial newspaper groups which have failed to invest in public interest journalism. The Local Democracy Reporting Service funds 150 reporters across the UK to cover district, borough and county councils hold local decision makers to account. Their stories are shared by newspapers, online and on BBC local radio and TV.  

27.  PSB’s can play an important part in the local economy. Channel 4 has moved its headquarters to Leeds and the BBC announced in January that it plans to open a new tech hub in Newcastle as part of a wider plan to ensure two-thirds of  its staff are based outside of London by 2027.


Looking ahead: What should a PSB look like in a digital age? What services should they provide, and to whom? In what way, and to whom, should they be accountable? Is the term 'public service broadcasting' still relevant and, if not, what is a suitable alternative?


28.  Above all else, PSB outlets should remain to be universally to all, and free at the point of consumption. This means a continuation of linear broadcasting for the foreseeable future, though it also presents challenges as some services transfer and evolve onto digital platforms. In terms of accountability, a strong, independent regulator, backed by statute, should be in place. Its powers should reflect the evolving digital and economic landscape. But the make-up of any regulator needs to change and be more democratic. Public service broadcasting is still relevant. We need to have impartial, independent, balanced and trusted news. We need to have public service broadcasting which challenges and takes risks and acts as a driver to the £110billion creative industry sector.

29.  The PSB channels are still distinctive in the amount and range of first-run, original UK programmes they broadcast.  According to Ofcom, collectively they provide audiences with approximately 32,000 hours of new UK content in a wide range of subjects, including news, current affairs, drama and children’s programmes. This far outweighs what is available on other commercial broadcast channels and the global streaming services

30.  At the core of PSB must be a strong, independent BBC providing public service media to the nations and regions across all platforms.  This can only happen if the licence fee is protected and continues in some shape or form. The BBC would not survive as a subscription service.  Consensus is growing towards a household-style tax, possibly based upon utility bills, with a progressive element when the present charter period ends. PSB remains an important and vital cornerstone of broadcasting in the UK. It needs to have strong support from government to survive, but at all times should remain independent from it. The BBC found itself under attack from the present government. Ministers boycotted Radio 4’s Today programme (and still boycott Newsnight). A source, believed to be advisor Dominic Cummings, was quoted in the Sunday Times in February as saying the BBC was going to be “whacked” and lose its TV licence. A consultation into decriminalising TV licence evasion, which would have cost the BBC £20million a year, was opened. Then the virus arrived. The Prime Minister set out strict new measures in response to the Covid-19 emergency; in all 28million people tuned in. Since then the Six O’Clock News, including the daily Number 10 briefings, has had a steady audience of around 4.1 million viewers, up 85 per cent on the 2019 average. The BBC moved swiftly to inform, educate and entertain in times of Covid-19 and the attacks on the corporation eased. But the BBC will come out of the crisis in dire financial straits. It will start to pay the £250 million a year for free licence fees to over-75s who claim pension credit. It will complete its £80million cuts to news and have to find further savings of £125million.  The DCMS committee must support the corporation as an ailing BBC will have far-reaching consequences for the whole industry.