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    Wednesday, 25 April 2007

    Ofcom's Public Service Publisher: Portal or Pot?

    The PSP road show continues at a seminar series organised by the BBC’s David Levy at Oxford’s Said Business School Tuesday.

    Ofcom – represented here by William Garrood, have proposed that a digital public service provider should be set up to meet the shortfall in Public Service Broadcasting brought about by the switch to digital. But why there is a need to intervene, and what exactly this PSP beast should do, remain vague following Ofcom's recent consultation.

    Reading between the lines of the discussion in Oxford, it is clear that the regulator has been clever in using the PSP to stimulate debate. They have made little or no attempt to say exactly what the PSP should do but have so far offered a blank canvas: which to rampant wonks is like a red rag to a bull. The PSP can be anything we want it to be, so there is no reason we should not all get very excited about it, albeit for very different reasons. Ofcom has outsourced the task of visualising the PSP to consultants and media companies, and to Robin Foster, roving Uberwonk formerly of Ofcom, who outlines the proposal at this seminar. The next crucial step will be an Ofcom summary of the responses to the consultation, but there is only so much that Ofcom can do. At some point the question of just what the PSP should do has to be answered. Not by Ofcom, but by Government.

    There are serious reasons why Ofcom has not been explicit about what the PSP is. As we often hear, Ofcom is a creature of statute. Whilst the margin for discretion and independent action is wide given the several hundred duties listed in the Communications Act, the regulator could be criticised if there is no identifiable power or remit behind ad hoc initiatives like promoting the PSP. Given its duty to ‘protect and strengthen public service broadcasting’ it could be accused of mission creep if it takes the PSP proposal too far.

    In determining where the ‘market shortfall’ as Robin Foster described it at this seminar, actually is, you first have to decide what the objectives and externalities to be achieved are. Because there is no agreement about what public service digital media can achieve, there remains huge uncertainty about whether the market will provide, how long we should wait for it to do so, and therefore what objectives a PSP should have. Should the PSP’s objectives be lifted from Ofcom’s general purposes for PSB as described in the Communications Act? Surely not: there should be a broader debate about public intervention in interactive digital media that goes beyond broadcasting. If the point of the PSP, as recently proposed, is to create links between user generated initiatives and with public sector arts and culture organisations this seems to suggest the need for a common portal. But most proposals for the PSP seem to view it as a pot of money for funding content production. If it is a pot, rather than a portal, as the BBC fear, is it simply a Trojan Horse for contestable funding: the old idea that broadcasters should compete for subsidy from an ‘Arts Council of the airwaves?’

    These – huge – questions for the PSP are nowhere near to being answered, and the Ofcom's programme of work on the PSP is likely to remain vague for the reasons outlined. So let us pose a question: is it likely on the basis of current proposals that Ofcom will be able to open the wallet of the Treasury to pay for this? And what kind of a ‘market failure analysis’ – if any - should be carried out whilst the objectives are unclear? We need a Green Paper to flush out the Government steer on all this.

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