In this article we discuss Part 5 of the updated First Reading version of the Media Bill (“Regulation of Radio Services”) and how it compares to Part 5 of the draft Media Bill published earlier this year.
When the draft Media Bill was first published, we summarised the changes that were proposed in respect of the de-regulation of commercial radio and the associated reform to the legislation regulating commercial radio that was largely developed in the late 1990s.
Now the Media Bill has been updated and published, we discuss below what has changed from the first draft Bill, whether the Select Committee’s recommendations were accepted by the government and how this might impact stakeholders – namely, small to large commercial radio stations.
Select Committee recommendations
The main change to Part 5 of the Media Bill relates to the proposed requirement in the draft Bill that local radio services must include, on a regular basis, programmes that consist of, or include, local news and information.
The Select Committee’s view was that while they were broadly supportive of the proposed changes to the content specifications on radio stations, acknowledging that a larger focus on local news would attract more listeners, they were concerned that there was a lack of clarity on how Ofcom would enforce these new requirements.
The Media Bill seems to attempt to address these concerns by:
- removing the overall requirement that local radio services must include programmes that consist of locally gathered news and information; and
- introducing an alternative requirement that a local broadcasting licence must contain “such conditions as Ofcom considers appropriate for requiring the broadcasting service to include local news and regularly broadcast programmes that consist of, or include, local news and information” and such conditions as Ofcom considers appropriate for “requiring that local news consist of or include locally gathered news,”
thereby empowering Ofcom to decide how it wishes to enforce the proposed content requirements and providing some relief for radio services that the requirement to gather local news is not so prescriptive.
The Bill has also sought to address two concerns around the definition of “locally gathered news.” The first being that the definition, as proposed in the draft Bill, was far too restrictive for small to medium radio stations who would likely incur a significant increase in costs of compliance and the second being that in any event the definition still lacked clarity as to what exactly “locally gathered news” meant. The Bill has now replaced the definition of locally gathered news, being “news that has been gathered in the area or locality for which the local broadcasting service is provided” to provide that it is
“news gathered in the coverage area of a local radio multiplex service that to a significant extent includes the coverage area of the local broadcasting service”
the practical impact being that services will not be limited (subject to the conditions Ofcom imposes) to necessarily employ journalists in such a small area. If there is no local radio multiplex service with such a coverage area, then it must be “news gathered in the area or locality for which the local broadcasting service is provided”. However, for both these purposes, Ofcom shall be entitled to determine the coverage area for a local radio multiplex service or a local broadcasting service and as above, impose such conditions as Ofcom considers appropriate for requiring the broadcasting service to include local news.
The Select Committee also raised concerns around the broad powers given to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (the “Secretary of State”) to make regulations on local radio news autonomously. The Media Bill has accepted the recommendation from the Committee with respect to this concern and has built in a requirement for the Secretary of State to consult with Ofcom before making any regulations with respect to the regulation of radio services.
The CMS view
The remainder of Part 5 of the Media Bill largely remained unchanged.
In the Select Committee’s report on the radio measures in the draft Media Bill, the Committee pointed to the Government’s assurances back in 2017 to provide greater legislative clarity with respect to the regulation of commercial radio and argued that the draft Bill did not go far enough in addressing this lack of clarity. The Media Bill does seek to address this concern with respect to the new content requirements by further tightening the definition of locally gathered news and empowering Ofcom to instead stipulate specific licence conditions.
With respect to the other de-regulatory measures that remained the same, as mentioned in our previous article, we were surprised by the extent of the measures impacting UK radio, being more than a mere relaxation of licence requirements and instead better characterised as a total liberalisation of the regulatory framework. The Media Bill again reinforces the Government’s clear desire to further support and enable the commercial radio industry and shows that the industry seems to have succeeded in driving home the message that commercial radio remains valuable and provides stronger support to UK culture than online-only streaming music services.
We will be watching this Media Bill closely as it passes through Parliament, so keep an eye out for our updates on our dedicated CMS Media Bill webpage. If you would like to discuss any aspect of the Media Bill or how it may affect you, please get in touch.