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When is a newspaper not a newspaper?

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There is a battle brewing for 2010 around regulation of audio-visual news (also known sometimes as on demand programme services, or TV-on-demand, or video, but more about that later). At the heart of the issue is how the different media regulatory bodies judge when audio visual material is television-like and when it’s not. Only then can they decide who has responsibility for regulating it. Or not. Tricky? You haven’t heard the half of it.

The battle comes to a head next year because:

  • The government is accepting bids for Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) that will step in when ITV steps out of producing regional news (see report on Media Guardian)
  • News groups – including newspapers – are already putting together bids to run IFNCs (e.g. Trinity Mirror, PA and Ten Alps in the North East). Meaning that newspapers will be involved in the production of audio visual material for broadcast on TV and on the web
  • The Audio Visual Media Services Directive comes into force on 19th December 2009, meaning that all audio visual material on the web that is television like will be regulated by ATVOD (the Association for Television on Demand)
  • The PCC’s remit already extends to audio visual material on newspaper websites, such as that produced and broadcast on Trinity Mirror sites (e.g. on Birmingham Mail)
  • Broadcast television news (i.e. the stuff you see on your telly in the living room) will continue to be regulated by Ofcom including, presumably, the regional news produced by the IFNCs on ITV between, for example, 6-6.30pm

These things, you have probably noticed, are not mutually compatible. They add up, at the very least, to a regulatory soup and potentially a regional news car crash (please excuse the multiple mixed metaphors).

Even in the most straightforward future scenario in which: the Conservatives win the next election and maintain commitment to IFNCs (already in doubt), Ofcom accepts a number of bids, and there is a relatively smooth transfer of services at the end of 2010 (alot of ‘ifs’ there) – it is still far from clear how these services would be regulated and by who.

Which is presumably why Baroness Buscombe, the chair of the PCC, has launched a broadside against Ofcom, warning this week that “extension of Ofcom’s powers beyond television could damage freedom of expression” (see ‘Buscombe: Ofcom expansion has risks for free speech‘).

The PCC is presumably concerned that if, say, Trinity Mirror-PA-Ten Alps wins the NE England franchise for IFNC, then the audio visual news it produces will no longer be regulated by the PCC but by Ofcom and, by extension, all video content broadcast on Trinity Mirror newspaper websites will have to adhere to broadcast regulations on impartiality.

This is highly unlikely. For one thing, the AVMS directive, which will apply to the new television-like services online, will not be regulated by Ofcom but by ATVOD, and does not include guidelines about impartiality (though ATVOD does accept Ofcom as a backstop regulator). Moreover, the IFNC is not the same as Trinity Mirror newspapers, and will be distinguishable from them (not least because it will be making programmes for television broadcast).

However, she is right to start to raise questions about audio visual news regulation. From the perspective of the public, who regulates what as regards audio visual material online is already confusing. After the 19th December (when AVMS comes into force) it will be even more so. By the end of next year it will only be lawyers and regulatory nerds who will have a clue as to who is responsible to whom for what. This is not a great situation to end up in.

These issues desperately need a proper public airing in the first half of 2010. Unfortunately, given the forthcoming election, they are liable to get lost in politics until the summer, by which time things will be even more of a muddle than they are now.

Written by Martin Moore

December 4th, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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