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Ofcom will regulate streaming platforms to ‘protect audiences’ from ‘harmful material’

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UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries recommends the privatisation of Channel 4 and reveals new plans for Ofcom to regulate streaming platforms such as Netflix, ITV Hub and Disney+.

The UK Government will give the country’s media watchdog, Ofcom, the power to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code. The code will aim to set standards for “larger TV-like services” such as Netflix, ITV Hub and Now TV to level the rules with traditional broadcasters.

Under the rules, Ofcom will be given a “strengthened duty” to protect audiences from “harmful material,” the proposal explains, citing challenged health claims and documentaries that have been labelled 'pseudoscience'. With these measures, the Government continues to strive to make tech firms accountable for the content hosted on their platforms, building on the provisions of the Online Safety Bill. 

The regulator will be able to make decisions regarding age ratings and viewer guidance and impose fines of up to £250,000 or an amount of up to five per cent of their revenue – whichever is higher.

The new regulations have been detailed in the broadcasting white paper published by the Government, which also discusses other topics related to the country’s broadcasting strategy, including the privatisation of Channel 4.

Under public ownership, the broadcaster is said to have limited ability to borrow or raise capital by issuing shares and its set-up “effectively stops it from making its own content,” as it remains reliant on advertising revenue. Privatisation is seen by the government as a way of opening the door to new revenue streams. In turn, some of the proceeds from the sale could be used to deliver a new creative dividend for the sector, it says.

“A sale would release Channel 4 from the outdated shackles of public ownership,” said Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. “It would allow it to turn on the private funding taps, and invest heavily in new technology and programming.”

In her written statement, she said streaming services like Amazon Prime Video spent £779 million in 2020 on original productions in the UK, a figure she says is “twice as much as Channel Four.” Now, Netflix's intention to enter the advertisement space is expected to drive further competition in the sector. 

At the same time, the government has announced it will launch a consultation to ensure broadcasters such BBC, ITV and Channel 4 make “distinctively British” programmes, citing Downtown Abbey, Doctor Who and I May Destroy You as examples that “reflect a vision of a modern UK.”

Nonetheless, the privatisation announcement has faced public opposition and left Tory MPs and peers questioning the plans.

Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary, Lucy Powell, spoke out against the plans, saying: “It will likely mean fewer British-made programmes for British audiences and less support for British jobs across the country.”

The white paper also proposes the opportunity to secure rights to air TV’s major sporting events, such as the Fifa World Cup and Wimbledon, be made an exclusive public service broadcaster (PSB) benefit through reforms to the listed events regime. Similarly, the Government will update prominence rules so online TV platforms are legally required to offer PSB on-demand services, such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub, reinforcing the rules introduced in 2019. 

The Culture Secretary said the plans will “revamp decades-old law” to help PSBs stay competitive.

In a statement, ITV said: “We welcome the Government’s recognition of the huge value the PSBs deliver to the UK. We will engage carefully with the substance of the White Paper once it is published, but many of its proposals – notably reform to prominence and inclusion rules, a more flexible approach to remits, and changes to the listed events regime – look very sensible.”

Netflix added: “We are supportive of measures to update the legal framework and bring our service in the UK under Ofcom’s jurisdiction.”

However, Julian Knight, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports chairman, has stressed the need for the Government to ensure that major sporting events can also be enjoyed by all online on catch-up rather than on live TV.

“The rules ensuring major sporting events are free to be enjoyed by all have failed to keep pace with rapid changes in audience viewing habits,” he said. “With the proposals announced today aimed at helping public service broadcasters thrive, it is puzzling why there is a deafening silence on the role of radio and how it will be supported, This will need to be rectified if, as promised, audiences are to enjoy a new golden age of programming.”

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