Written Constitution for UK Public Service Broadcasting

23 September 2003

Ofcom, the media and telecoms regulatory body empowered by Britain's new Communications Bill, is to draft the United Kingdom’s first written constitution for public service broadcasting.

Perhaps ominously for PSB – and the BBC in particular – the pen that could be mightier than the sword will be wielded by Ed Richards, a former head of strategy at the BBC, poached by prime minister Blair in 1999 to serve as his senior policy advisor for media, telecoms, internet, e-government and ICT. Richards recently transferred to Ofcom as senior partner, strategy and market development.

The new constitution and its appointed author were announced on Sunday during one of the closing sessions of this year’s Royal Television Society convention at Kings College, Cambridge. The speaker was axed NTL boss, now Ofcom chief executive, Stephen Carter.

Said Carter: “If PSB is to survive and thrive over the next ten years and beyond, all of it needs a written constitution. Surely sound bites from the 1930s will no longer suffice ... for the first time [the new communications act] requires an independent regulator – not the government, not the BBC – but an independent regulator to take a holistic view across all the public service broadcasters, including the BBC.”

He continued: “There is a trade-off in the price of the [wireless] spectrum and the social benefits from the delivery of public service broadcasting. Our review will make this trade-off much more explicit and enable it to factor in the cost of ITV and Channel Five's licences and what Channel 4 currently gets for free.”

For the BBC’s legion of conference attendees, Carter’s next sentence should have been accompanied by the screeching strings beloved of horror movie score composers. “And, of course, the review will, as the secretary of state said yesterday, set the context for the BBC charter – what they are expected to deliver and the means they are given to do so.”

The three-stage PSB TV review will look ahead at how the medium might develop over five years. Stage one starts in October and will assess the current state of public service broadcasting on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. A report will be published by spring 2004, followed by a public consultation.

Stage two – from spring to summer 2004 – will examine the prospects for the future. While stage three, recommendations arising from stages one and two, is scheduled for completion by autumn 2004.

Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff