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UPDATE LSE Group Says Ofcom Hasn’t Grasped the Interests of Citizens

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014 (8:48 am) - Score 440

Several professors from the London School of Economics (LSE), specifically its Media Policy division, have claimed that the national communications regulator, Ofcom, still has “not grasped the interests of citizens” and needs to do more in order to recognise the “other dimensions” of a networked society and the “vital role of communications” in a healthy democracy.

Professors Sonia Livingstone (LSE) and Peter Lunt (University of Leicester), both of whom focus on matters of media and communications, noted that Ofcom has done plenty of things to “further the interests of citizens” (Ofcoms rule). In particular they highlight Ofcom’s seemingly positive efforts to ensure access to public service broadcasting on digital platforms and facilitate better mobile and fixed broadband access.

However the professors warn that Ofcom’s recent Citizens and Communications Services report tended to focus on the above aspects and thus overlooked several other important considerations, which have been outlined below (e.g. state surveillance, privacy, freedom of expression etc.).

The Top 4 Points for Ofcom to Address

1. Narrow scope. The report examines the availability, accessibility and affordability of communication services. Fine. But why just these three dimensions of the citizen interest? When will other dimensions be addressed? Notably, the focus is on communications hardware, with some attention to skills but little attention to communication content or purposes. Getting people in touch and online is a necessary but insufficient condition for meeting the citizens’ interest so they can play a full role in society.

2. Public service broadcasting. The focus now seems all about preserving what we already have in the UK. The ambition of Ofcom’s early days regarding innovation in public service, much of which has not yet come to fruition, is not mentioned. Also missing is mention of problems Ofcom has addressed in the past – threats to and reduction in children’s broadcasting or regional news, for instance. Yes, there are experiments underway in local television, and there are now more licensed community radio stations (though not more stations).

Why, even, is Ofcom’s own current consultation on media plurality not included here as an important part of the citizen interest? Does Ofcom judge it has done enough to ensure a lively, plural, trustworthy and inclusive news and current affairs landscape, along with high quality and diverse content in other genres?

3. Participation in what? The section on why communications services matter to citizens has a curious omission. It is clear that citizens need to be able to contact friends and family, work and emergency services. It adds that communities are important, as is social participation and the ‘sense’ of participating in ‘society’ (p.8). Later, there is mention of take-up of government services online.

But why nothing about democratic participation in political processes, whether mainstream or alternative? Nothing about the importance of a lively public sphere – inclusive, deliberative, effective? Given the size and diversity of the UK population, communication networks are vital to citizens’ participation with political institutions and about political processes at all levels from local to transnational.

Ofcom’s media literacy audits repeatedly show low and unequal participation in democratic processes via communication networks. How, then, could Ofcom further the citizen interest in this regard? For instance, could mediated democratic forums or consultative processes be more discoverable, or more responsive or more inclusive? We suggest Ofcom should play a role here, to further the citizen interest in communications matters.

4. Media literacy. The missing link between communications services and their uses to advance the citizen interest is media literacy. As our previous posts have tracked, Ofcom has retrenched from efforts to ‘promote media literacy’ (the exact wording of the Act); now it just conducts research designed to inform such efforts (presumably undertaken by others). Research is important, but not all research has an impact and so may not be meet the requirement of the Act to ‘promote’. Moreover, who is promoting media literacy, how Ofcom collaborates with them and, indeed, whether the population’s media literacy is increasing (especially witnessing the uncertainties over media education) – all this is unclear.

Page 30 of the document, also disappointingly, reverts to a passive and now-rejected definition of media literacy as use, understanding and protection, omitting mention of the civic and critical dimensions of media literacy – creating communications and participating in politically-motivated mediated forums and consultative processes.

Intriguingly, the report contains evidence for directions that could now be taken: citizens are often unaware of online services, they don’t trust them, and they don’t recognise the benefits on offer. If Ofcom really wishes to ‘increase demand for services’ (p.42) that further the citizen interest, it could now encourage citizens to engage by promoting the value of civic, community and political communication online. And it could work with political and community organisations to build trust and increase responsiveness and efficacy.

Overall the professors warn that Ofcom’s focus on correcting perceived “market failure“, and regulating against consumer detriment, is at risk of overlooking the need to regulate for the protection of citizen rights, such as in areas like state surveillance, privacy, identity, freedom of expression, media plurality and Net Neutrality.

In fairness some of these areas, such as the seemingly endless debate over Net Neutrality (i.e. the principle of treating all Internet traffic as equal), tend to be set by Europe and central Governments rather than the state regulator itself. But the professors argue that Ofcom could do more instead of waiting for others to set the agenda, although we suspect that politicians wouldn’t like a regulator that didn’t tow-the-line.

ISPreview.co.uk has contact Ofcom for comment and we are awaiting their reply.

UPDATE 1:59pm

The communications regulator has now given us their reply.

An Ofcom Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

We take our duty to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters very seriously. The UK has a strong record of meeting the communications needs of its citizens, but, as the report explains, we recognise that there is more work to do.

The report was focused on the availability, accessibility and affordability of communications services in the UK and the extensive work under way to address particular challenges in these areas. In addition, we also continue to consider the citizen interest in a number of other areas of our work not covered by the report, including our third review of public service broadcasting.”

Ofcom also said that they’re proactive in enforcing content standards in the interests of UK citizens, engaging in related debates and that the recent ‘Citizens and Communications Services Report’ did not set out to cover all of the regulators citizen-related activities. Indeed the scope of their report did seem to be intentionally focused on a very particular set of issues fundamental to citizens’ experience of communications markets.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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