Banning RT - the industry dilemma

Martin Campbell, a former Ofcom Chief Advisor, warns against removing RT's broadcasting licence

By Martin Campbell
Posted 16 March 2018, 1.13pm edt

Throwing the revocation of the broadcasting licences of RT (formerly Russia Today) into the mix of possible sanctions against Russia could have untold unintended consequences for broadcasting back here in the UK.

When Theresa May said in the House of Commons that RT’s UK licence could be in jeopardy and that Ofcom would be looking into it I heard the soft yet distinct sound of a worm can being prised open.

There are two particularly big worms which might have best been left alone.

Firstly, if someone from DCMS had simply called Ofcom and asked them to do a bit of digging into RT because it might prove useful, then that is one thing.

But for the Prime Minister to say it is going to happen anyway sounds alarmingly like an instruction to Ofcom to dig up a reason for the revocation of RT’s licence. That turns Ofcom from a creature of statute into a clear arm of Government. The repercussions of that could be a political game changer. Broadcasting decisions look as if they are sliding closer towards a form of Westminster control than ever before.

UK broadcast regulators over the years — the IBA, the Radio Authority, the ITC — naturally acknowledged their links with government but in doing so were proud to operate independently when it came to decisions about the industry. Yes, it was a different world with far fewer channels, less broadcasting from abroad and pre social media. But the regulatory role was pretty clear.

Ofcom was created as an amalgam of regulators, and was set up very much in a Blairite style, happy to stand in the reflection of government dealings, operating at an arm’s length from the industry and acting administratively more like a council. Its initial months were heralded as having created a model regulator even though the clarity of the role was getting a little hazy.

But this week’s move in the Commons brings Ofcom uncomfortably close to appearing to actually do Government bidding rather than regulating independently. They are, of course, now damned if they suggest revocation and damned if they do not. They will be accused either of allowing themselves to be pushed around if they revoke … or be accused of rank stupidity, perhaps even disloyalty, if they don’t revoke.

It was interesting that promised “further details” of Ofcom’s adventures with RT did not materialise on Wednesday. Perhaps someone noticed that the broadcasting industries might feel a little uneasy about a new role for Ofcom as the Commons lapdog. It may be RT today. But who will it be tomorrow?

The second worm involves the messy question of TV channels broadcasting to or in foreign countries where broadcast regulations are different. This has bugged the regulator for years. When the number of stations wishing to broadcast abroad blossomed much of the regulatory mess required good relations between countries’ regulators to sort out, and many countries had to tackle the question of TV companies moving headquarters to muddy waters.

The rules for holding licences in the UK are pretty straightforward in themselves. But when foreign stations broadcast primarily for their own countrymen then listener or viewer expectation is a factor.

Fox News was rapped over the knuckles a few times for lack of impartiality but in reality it was a daily offender. The view taken was that people knew what to expect so it didn’t matter. A self-selecting audience, if you will.

The spotlight on Fox News in recent months could have created a very uncomfortable situation: but it packed its bags and left our broadcasting shores before such a situation could arise.

RT brings similar difficulties. It has breached the impartiality rules a number of times. But if Ofcom concludes that it has happened too often and that because of that its licence should be revoked, then, again, a very worrying precedent will have been created. Firstly, why hasn’t the licence already been revoked if they’ve been naughty too often? Secondly, the creation of a number of strikes and you’re out is no way to regulate: and many other channels would feel under threat. All breaches have different stories behind them. The effect on content and standards of TV channels feeling intimidated by regulation would be unthinkable.

However, if impartiality is not the weapon of choice and, as Theresa May has intimated, a “fit and proper” test needs to be carried out then Ofcom’s own past decisions may well have to be scrutinised. The Broadcasting Act clearly states that to hold a satellite licence or Freeview licence (RT have both) in the UK the licence holder cannot be a political body or, indeed, be controlled by a political body or by members of a political body. Records show the licence is held by TV Novosti which is, I quote from Ofcom’s records, “an autonomous non-profit organisation.” Ofcom can hardly accuse TV Novosti of staging or having involvement in an attack on British soil in order to revoke its licence. It will have to look to TV Novosti’s masters. And here lies another problem.

There is, of course, general acceptance that it is financed via the Kremlin, having been the pet of Mr Putin when he was PM a decade ago. In fact, in a press release Ofcom states that RT “is financed from the budget of the Russian Federation.” When does finance become control?

If the conclusion is that the Kremlin does not control RT then it will be quite a step to revoke a licence, effectively blaming a licensee for the sins of its backers. If the conclusion is that the Kremlin does indeed control RT then there have to be questions about why the licence was issued in the first place.

Russia has threatened expulsion of all British journalists if RT licences are snatched back: but that won’t be the only media casualty. For the UK, broadcast regulation may never look quite the same again.

David Cameron, when PM, promised Ofcom would be on the top of a “bonfire of quangos” but back-pedalled furiously when he realised the need for a buffer between Parliament and broadcasting if politicians weren’t to be accused of controlling the broadcast industry. It appears Theresa May may not have understood that lesson.

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Martin Campbell — Martin is a Media Adviser with Media Objectives and has been an Ofcom Chief Advisor, Chair of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and Managing Editor of Talk Radio UK