MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; EC BROADCAST LAWS: Is the EC playing politics with new broadcast restrictions?

Alasdair Reid on whether the proposed EC ad break restraints will become law

Alasdair Reid on whether the proposed EC ad break restraints will become


Forget the Scott report. When it comes to political shenanigans of

Byzantine complexity, the European Community is still in a league of its

own. Its various legislative bodies can also be relied upon as a source

of thumping good scare stories of the ‘Brussels wants to ban our

bangers’ variety. Witness the fall-out from last week’s session of the

European Parliament in Strasbourg, which examined the community’s

broadcasting laws.

The end result of its deliberations, ran the scare stories, is a new

rule banning centre break advertising in programmes that contain less

than 30 minutes of editorial material (Campaign, last week). News at

Ten, for instance, occupies 30 minutes in the schedules, but because

that running time includes an ad break, it only has 26 minutes of

editorial - so in future ITN would have to drop the ad break. (This, of

course, would bring the programme’s editorial length back up to 30

minutes, but that’s just confusing the issue.)

And it’s true, up to a point. Strasbourg did pass just such an

amendment. But is it really time for the broadcasters to panic? Well,

perhaps not quite yet. The EC is currently trying to update the 1989

Television Without Frontiers broadcasting directive and, as its title

suggests, this concerns itself only with channels that cross borders -

such as satellite channels or overspill channels, like French stations

that can be received in Belgium. It does set the agenda for best

practice in individual member states, but each country can maintain its

own rules for purely domestic broadcasting. So its effect on domestic

programming such as News at Ten, is debatable anyway.

It’s also debatable whether Strasbourg will have the last word. Last

summer, another EC body - the Council of Ministers, including the UK’s

own Department of National Heritage representatives - came up with some

broadcasting proposals which included a pretty liberal line on

advertising. These proposals were then passed on to the Parliament for

discussion. Parliament - which is the most democratic EC body - now

wants to show it is not the Council’s poodle.

Sue Eustace, the head of European affairs at the ITV Association,

believes that an increasingly confident Parliament has chosen

broadcasting as a battleground. ‘Parliament has chosen this issue to

take a stand on because it is a high-profile issue touching on many

aspects of culture,’ she says. ‘And it has taken a hard line, not just

on advertising but on things like programme quotas [restricting imports

of US programming], because it wants to stake out a tough negotiating

position with the Council of Ministers.’

Lionel Stanbrook, the director of legislative and political issues at

the Advertising Association, is confident that the Strasbourg excesses

will be gently corrected by the Council of Ministers. ‘This may become a

watershed,’ he maintains. ‘It may have taken Parliament further away

from real power in Europe, but it has also shown that there are some

things that can’t be controlled at EC level. Parliament is basically

putting forward protectionist measures that are 20 years out of date. Of

course, if Parliament doesn’t back down, then this might become very

important indeed.’

Is Strasbourg playing pointless power politics? Carol Tongue, a Labour

Member of European Parliament and the Labour Group’s media policy co-

ordinator, says not. ‘We [Labour] voted against the advertising

proposals in question,’ she points out. ‘People do realise the

importance of advertising and the amendment is unlikely to survive.

There will not be dramatic changes to the advertising culture in any of

the member states. But people should realise that Parliament is now more

than a consultative body.’