Industry News

The Media Act was an opportunity too good to miss

A view from Matt Payton, first published in Campaign.

The new law marks a seminal moment and will ensure UK media businesses are in a stronger position in coming years.

For most of us, opportunities to help shape the law don’t come around very often. So when a chance opens up to make a change for the better, you need to grab it with both hands.

This is especially the case in media, where legislation is incredibly rare, and why the recent passing of the Media Act was so important for the UK’s creative industries, audiences and advertisers.

It’s been more than 20 years since the last major change in media-specific rules with the 2003 Communications Act. In many ways, the framework it established was visionary, as it recognised the convergence happening between technology and media while anticipating the impact this would have on all our lives.

But given the explosion of digital distribution and media choice in recent years, a consensus started to emerge that it was time to look again at the best way to secure the future of UK media businesses, especially given their growing reliance on global tech platforms to reach audiences.

In television, this meant looking again at ways to ensure prominence across platforms, while introducing common rules on content standards that bring streaming services like Netflix into the scope of regulation on harm and offence.

In audio, the rapid growth of radio listening online – and especially on smart speakers like the Amazon Alexa – has also changed the game. On one hand, there are great opportunities for broadcasters to provide more services and greater interactivity for audiences, as well as enhanced possibilities to advertisers. However, the reliance of radio stations on Amazon, Google and other voice platforms also creates risks. For example, the platforms could start diverting listeners to their own content – and then look to monetise UK radio (by charging to access, seeking a share of ad revenue or even inserting their own ads).

Fortunately, the Media Bill included measures to address these issues, while also removing outdated commercial radio regulation and supporting local news provision.

Given the sensible nature of the changes, there was a strong cross-party consensus in parliament on the need to make these changes. This was reflected not only by the contributions of MPs and peers, but also by the pace at which the bill seemed to be moving through parliament with minimal amendments.

In fact, the progress of the legislation appeared almost too good to be true. At least until 22 May when, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, the prime minister decided to step out into a wet and noisy Downing Street to announce he was calling a general election and dissolving parliament in two days’ time. At this point, I suspect the majority of people started to think about what lay ahead – and, perhaps, even some of the big election issues, such as health, education and the economy.

But spare a thought for those of us who had spent several years shaping and explaining the importance of changes in the media bill. It might seem parochial, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had visions of all that work going down the drain.

For a nervy 24 hours, that seemed like a real possibility. However, in the end, the hard work in communicating the value of these changes appeared to pay off. Ultimately, it was included as part of the legislative “wash-up”, where a process that could normally take weeks or months can be rushed through in a matter of hours.

Of course, these changes aren’t perfect and won’t solve everything, but they mark a seminal moment and will ensure that UK media businesses are in a stronger position over the next few years. Enabling broadcasters, producers and creative businesses to face the future with greater confidence.

What’s more, we won’t have to start all over again with (potentially) a new government that just might have a few other things to think about.