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Ed Vaizey: Government must will the means, as well as the ends, in supporting public service broadcasters

Screen shot 2014 10 12 at 08.26.31

Lord Vaizey of Didcot is a Conservative peer and member of the Lords Communications and Digital Committee. He was the UK’s longest-serving Arts Minister (2010-16).

Like so many people, I’ve watched more TV in lockdown than I have done in years. And it’s not just because we haven’t been allowed out.

There is some brilliant stuff out there. None more so than that shown on the main public service broadcaster (PSB) channels – Line of Duty on the BBC, The Pembrokeshire Murders on ITV, It’s A Sin on Channel 4, and All Creatures Great and Small on Channel 5. Great programmes that huge audiences are watching and talking about.

These are a few of the brilliant programmes the PSBs make, and a tiny example that doesn’t do justice to how much they contribute to the country and its social fabric. Whether it’s the contribution they make to democracy through their news services, the social value they have bringing the country together through national moments and sporting events, or the significant economic contribution they make with their huge investments right across the UK.

To put this into context, the UK TV and film industry helped the country avoid recession in summer 2019. It can now help our economy recover in 2021 and beyond.

Since 2011 the creative industries have created three times more jobs than the UK-wide average. Prior to the pandemic, the creative sector was growing five times faster than the wider economy and contributing £111.7 billion to UK plc – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences, and oil and gas industries combined.

The Chancellor’s ‘Restart’ reinsurance scheme has helped the cameras keep rolling in TV and film, supporting 160 titles in four months, protecting almost 20,000 jobs and generating £680m of economic activity. This support has helped the screen industry bounce back and record the second highest production spend in history. The creative industries are central to the UK’s future economy, and the PSBs have proven their value as the lynchpin of this internationally successful sector.

The PSBs have also played a pivotal role during Covid. Sharing accurate, reliable news and information when there is so much disinformation. Promoting public health messaging and advice and working together to support the take-up of Covid vaccines amongst BAME communities. And bringing joy in a joyless time.

Independent, impartial public service broadcasting also showcases the Britain’s culture and promotes our values to the rest of the world. It tells uniquely British stories to international audiences. It commissions programmes exported widely across the world, enhancing the UK’s reputation, influence, and soft power abroad.

The economic, social, and cultural benefits PSBs deliver are not restricted to London’s metropolis. Channel 4 has new offices in Leeds, Bristol, and Glasgow, while the BBC is moving staff and programming outside the capital. PSBs support creative and production clusters in all four nations of our Union. They provide training opportunities for young people from different backgrounds. They reflect, represent, and serve the diverse communities of all the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.

But PSBs are let down by outdated laws. They operate in a hugely different market from when the regulation was set up in 2003 – pre-digital switchover, when Netflix was LoveFilm’s DVD delivery service. We need to act quickly if we want the PSB system to continue delivering for the country, and I urge all my colleagues to make the case to the Government.

This has been powerfully illustrated by the latest DCMS Select Committee report, which has concluded that there is a need for urgent reform. The Committee calls for draft legislation in this parliamentary session, before finding time to introduce and enact this legislation before the end of 2022.

The single most important thing Government can do is here is to update the prominence rules so PSB content remains widely available and discoverable across devices and platforms. The alternative, if we don’t act, is that eventually we will only have Netflix, Amazon and Disney+. Great services though they certainly are, they don’t reflect life in the UK particularly, there’s no news on them and you will search in vain for anything that reflects a particular nation or region of this country.

As Julian Knight, the Committee Chair, has said: “To enable public service broadcasters to compete in a digital world, Ministers must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date. It’s a question of prominence – too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms…”

It is easy to take for granted the fundamental contribution the PSBs currently make to the UK’s culture, democracy and economy. The reality – as the Select Committee has so robustly set out – is that unless politicians act now to support them, they will increasingly be unable to deliver anything like the scale of social benefits that everyone in the UK currently enjoys.

By contrast, the Big Tech platforms are so large and powerful that they will be in an invincible, unassailable position in ten years’ time. As Parliamentarians and policymakers we must will the means necessary to support Britain’s public service broadcasters, as well as welcoming the positive end results they bring.

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