March 2001
Why regulate?

Do we need regulators?

Why regulate at all?

The first question to us about any regulation is WHY? Do we need regulation at all? If it is felt we do, for whose benefit? And what is the best form it should take?
There seem to be many voices arguing against regulation when it doesn't benefit them, indeed arguing that regulation isn't needed. But hear those same voices yelp when they need regulations for their own benefit!
In the case of a dictatorship, broadcasting is the voice of the dictator. To us, in a pluralistic democracy it should be a voice for as many views as possible and radio, which is comparatively cheap to produce, is the ideal medium for giving those views the chance of an audience.
We therefore would argue that the regulation should be seen in this light, not in terms of a purely commercial enterprise; we would also argue that diversity is automatically increased by having both commercial and non-commercial broadcasting and that a healthy democracy should not blink at paying the price for that.

Technical versus content regulation.

Within this context, the most basic divide in regulatory terms is that between technical regulation and regulation which deals with the content of a broadcast. The second of these is the most contentious to us as in the case of the former, we can but see problems if there were to be no regulation. So indeed can US radio business voices as evinced by their opposition to Low Power FM. Those same voices may argue for minimal government intervention in other areas but not in this case. And imagine their howls if anybody could just put up a transmitter and broadcast?
A Tower of Babel indeed -and one which would not benefit audiences; unless someone can find a magic way to create infinite spectrum it would be a recipe for interference to the detriment of all!

Technical regulation.

We thus see it as essential to have technical regulation and in many areas this is primarily a matter of engineering. More channels beyond a certain point, more objectionable interference and vice-versa.
However at the same time we have to recognise that this is not merely a technical matter but one which goes to the roots of broadcasting policy; since there is a balance between technical signal quality and the number of channels permitted this leads on to the non technical questions of who broadcasting should serve, who should have access to the airwaves, on what basis and indeed how we finance it.
The engineer can certainly provide information on ratios between desired signal and undesired signals but not strike the balance of exactly what trade-offs there ought to be between purity of signal and diversity of audience choice.
The links, however, do indicate to us that in many ways a single regulatory organisation concerned with both technical and societal matters may have more strengths than separate organisations dealing with the technical and content issues.
Content regulation:Range.

In the more contentious area of regulation, that of content, we think it important to consider not only what organisations should be entitled to use the limited broadcast spectrum, but how the balance should be struck between competing interests and what, if anything, should be prohibited.
Our view here is that it is healthiest if as wide a range of stations as possible should exist which does mean that the regulator would have to get involved in matters of format when issuing licences.
Free market anathema maybe, but to us having six pop stations, three sports stations and just one news outlet gives far less choice and a much less healthy democracy than five stations comprising a licence-funded news channel, a commercial news/talk channel, a sports channel, a pop channel and a full-range channel.
The remit of the UK radio authority uses the terms "cater for the tastes and interests of people living in the area, and the extent to which they would broaden choice vis--vis other local services."
It seems to us both reasonable and healthy in a democracy that a regulator should be set such an aim after due democratic debate rather than allowing commercial interests unfettered reign.

Content regulation: Censorship.

In terms of what we will term "censorship", we think prohibitions should be kept to a minimum but bearing in mind the recent history of Rwanda and the part played there by radio in inflaming ethnic hatreds and mass murder the old dictum of not having freedom of speech to cry "Fire" in a crowded cinema does have force.
The principles of law in general apply to broadcasters and indeed it can be argued that they should apply more rigorously to them than to individuals whose audience is more limited and has much more equality when it comes to responding.
The question that then comes to mind is how, once we have stepped away from the cases where general law indicates obvious rules (such as not inciting murder, say) to the greyer areas where a reasoned argument can be made on both sides. And in many of these areas the context of regulation seems to us all-important.
At Radionewsweb, we don't particularly appreciate religious broadcasting but would argue that if a station is clearly identified as a religious one and there is spectrum for such channels within a diverse range of stations, such a station deserves to be on air.
By the same logic, however, an anti-religious station should be permitted and, providing it does not set out merely to antagonise it should have wide freedoms to argue against religions. Whither then the blasphemy laws - or should we say, "wither" them. If one is to be prohibited, then how can the other fairly be permitted?
Similarly, providing an audience can be clear in advance what kind of offering a station is going to make, we would generally favour least prohibition beyond obedience to the law in general.
Maybe looking at some US examples, some stations should have carry regular disclaimers telling the audience that it may contain material generally considered bigoted, offensive, indecent, inaccurate and so on. Indeed maybe it would even be fair to declare the hosts of some shows legally "beyond libel" thus allowing unfettered right of reply to some of their victims.
What we would not favour is a narrow-minded curbing of freedoms; far rather enforcing an accurate description and then removing the regulator.

The market argument.

But, many voices may argue, the marketplace is the best way to sort out these issues. On this we would disagree. For all their faults, the very existence of broadcasters whose funding is not dependant upon advertising adds diversity to society although it does to us bring up different issues of regulation.
There is also the question of monopolies; Again we would feel it much healthier to retain caps on ownership which in the long run we feel promotes diversity rather than have a few big voices whose output may well be swayed by their own narrow self-interest but in such a way that the only way an audience could get a fair view would be to study who exactly owns what all the while.
Indeed we also feel that it offers better chances of employment to those who step away from the majority line, again a valuable check and balance in a democracy.

Stations funded by advertising.

Where a station is funded commercially it is in effect existing not just as an entity of itself but as a means of creating awareness of goods and services which means that it must attract both an audience and advertisers. Not enough of the former in the right demographic and there's certainly not enough of the latter. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true which perverts the balance of a democratic society.
Additionally we would feel that, as accurate sources of information are essential to a properly functioning democracy, a democracy should reasonably insist that all broadcasters should share in the burdens of this.
We would not prohibit pop or anything else only only stations which carry no news or information , but would consider a levy- based on audience (similar in a way to the training levies which exist in Germany) on them to be shared out amongst the news and information budgets of other stations in the market which did carry news.

Stations funded by licence fees.

Where a broadcaster is funded by a licence fee, the balance is different. The audience has a more direct link in the sense that they cannot opt out of contributing (but then neither can they opt out of the effects on a society of an overwhelmingly commercial environment) but less of one in the sense that they cannot so directly affect the service by tuning out.
They should have the right to receive from such a service programming that is distinct from the commercial variety in more ways than just the absence of advertisements. Any regulation then would have to be on a different basis and to us the best one is set a clear remit and budget for the service to which the broadcaster is held but beyond which there is again minimal regulation..

Internet, subscription and pay-as-you go.

For an Internet, subscription or pay-as-you-go broadcaster, the situation is yet again different.
Here we do think the market can be left to rule( apart from the caveat as above about taking a fair share of the costs of any burden of carrying information).
In the first case this is because because there is no spectrum limit and in the others because there is a direct relationship, chosen in advance, between what is received and what is paid.
And in these cases, because there has to be a choice to receive, we think the arguments for constraints have even less force.
If what is transmitted is not advocating or furthering the illegal and does not depend upon the illegal (child porn, for example, we would contend is such and to consume it makes the consumer an accomplice to the illegal act), we see not reason for a regulator to become involved..

Our overall view.

Overall then, we can but conclude that some form of regulation is inevitable and essential. That being so, licences should not be to us commercial tickets alone but should also be recognised as limited resources made available by a society to an organisation within the context of that society.
We would argue that, for a free society, the best method is to issue licences in a framework of clearly thought out rules that enhance diversity of services and ensure that the informational resources of the media are not discarded.
We also think that such licences should be issued for a limited period only thus ensuring that "new blood" can put in a bid at the end of a licence period.
Beyond that, the only regulation we see necessary is to ensure compliance with the law in general and an insistence that an audience gets a fair advance description of what it is going to receive if it tunes in. .

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like to introduce some "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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