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Margaret Thatcher: What Remains of Your Media Policy?

The decisions made in the Thatcher era had a decisive influence on the British broadcasting system.

Margaret Thatcher passed away on April 8th. From 1979 to 1990, the conservative British Prime Minister coined a political ideology for three consecutive terms that has gone down in history as Thatcherism. When many of the current obituaries deal with the effects and evaluation of their neoliberal policies on British society, Thatcher's rather critical position on German reunification and the Tories' skepticism about Europe (“I want my money back”), their influence is still felt today disregarded the design of the UK media system, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

This article reviews the most important cornerstones of the Thatcher government's media policy with a focus on German-British interdependencies. At the end there is an assessment of which of the initiatives initiated by your government is still in use today. What remains of the Thatcher administration's media policy?

When the British elections were held on May 3, 1979, Britain was in a deep economic crisis, struggling with unemployment, union strikes, low industrial productivity rates and high inflation. The winter of 1978-79 is known in the United Kingdom as the "Winter of Discontent" based on the first sentence in Shakespeare's drama "The Tragedy of King Richard the Third".

When Thatcher came to power in this climate, she countered the crisis through government spending cuts and privatizations. The latter, however, only came into effect in the second Thatcher government (1983-1987). In the first cabinet, a lot of capacity was simply tied up by the fight against inflation and the Falklands War with Argentina.

Channel 4

The first most important cornerstone of broadcasting policy from 1979 to 1983 was the founding of Channel 4. As early as 1977, the Annan Committee, headed by Noel Annan, a former intelligence officer of the British Control Commission in Germany, proposed the fourth channel (according to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV) outside of the existing broadcasting structure. The corresponding legal basis for this was created in the Broadcasting Act of 1980. In it, specifications were made that Channel 4 should broadcast programs for minorities and, in particular, should give space to innovative and experimental formats.

The fourth channel knew how to pick, broadcast and distribute programs from as many independent producers as possible, which was unique at the time. As a result, a competitive, independent production sector emerged, which would later help to break up the deadlocked structures of the top dogs BBC and ITV.

Channel 4 went on the air on November 2, 1982 with a varied, balanced and partly experimental program. The most important non-British impulse for Channel 4 - according to the founding director Jeremy Isaacs, as well as the current BBC general director Tony Hall a former director of the Royal Opera House - came from Lerchenberg in Mainz through "Das Kleine Fernsehspiel". Its long-time director Eckart Stein (1975-2000) sat on the Channel 4 advisory committee and remembers a unique German / British collaboration in the television sector, which presumably later, when the continuation of the television game was on the brink, prompted Richard Attenborough to create a passionate one Send letter to Dieter Stolte for receipt. “Das Kleine Fernsehspiel” is currently celebrating its 50th birthday with the entire ZDF family.

Satellite and cable

Parallel to the establishment of Channel 4, the Thatcher government attached great importance to new broadcast transmission technologies via satellite and cable in order to increase international competitiveness in the technology sector. The BBC was granted a license to broadcast on two of the five available satellite frequencies and initially viewed this as an additional pay-per-view or subscription service that was independent of the license fee. However, there were disagreements in terms of technology and funding, so that the BBC initiative petered out.

In relation to cable, on March 10, 1981, the UK Home Office had approved 13 subscription cable television experiments. The Thatcher government favored that a commercial and entertainment-heavy program should be available as soon as possible. In 1983, at the same time as Christian Schwarz-Schilling's large-scale cabling work in the Federal Republic, cables were also laid in Great Britain. Two years later, eight different, mostly North American companies offered 20 channels on the island.

However, the spread was slow, in 1988 barely 2.4 million British households were connected to the cable network and only 45,000 households were connected. At this point Germany was already on the way to becoming the largest European cable infrastructure. In 1990, 58.4% of the 26 million German households were cable households.

Market liberalism and broadcasting

The Thatcher government followed a market-liberal agenda, and the BBC was not spared from it either - but not entirely without its own fault. Although license fees had not increased until 1981, General Manager Alasdair Milne, already unpopular with Thatcher, asked in December 1984 for a further increase from £ 15 to £ 18 for black and white televisions and from £ 46 to £ 65 for color televisions.

Just as in Germany the CDU and CSU considered the ARD to be left-leaning, which - see e.g. the Brokdorf reporting - was partly justified, the Tories perceived the BBC reports on the Falklands War and the Northern Ireland crisis as being left-leaning. Rupert Murdoch did on the Times
Times sentiment against the BBC, and the two influential think tanks Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute had put forward proposals on how the free-market government agenda should be applied to the broadcasting sector.

So Milne's demand for a fee increase broke the barrel. On March 27, 1985, Interior Minister Leon Brittan agreed to a slightly weaker fee increase, but at the same time he set up the Committee for Financing the BBC, which was supposed to examine other financing options than the license fee. The Thatcher administration clearly favored advertising funding.

The chairmanship of the seven-member committee was entrusted to the liberal Scottish economist Professor Alan Peacock. During the Second World War, Peacock had helped decipher the Enigma code as a marine, before ending his active military career as a lieutenant in Kiel. From 1973 to 1976 Peacock was chief economic advisor to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the free-market center within the Thatcher government and the opposite of the moderate Ministry of the Interior. Peacock had served on or headed several government commissions, including the Arts Council Inquiry into Orchestral Resources, which looked at funding for the BBC orchestras. He and three of the consultants involved by the committee were close to the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The Peacock Report was presented in July 1986. Advertising funding for the BBC, the goal of the Thatcher government, is not approved because it runs counter to the interests of consumers and primarily serves those of the advertising industry. Instead, a three-stage process is proposed, which is based on future broadcast developments.

Initially, the Peacock Committee expected the spread of satellite and cable technology in Stage 1 and, in parallel, suggested indexing the BBC license fee to the development of consumer prices. Further proposals are to oblige the “comfortable duopoly” (BBC and ITV) to obtain 40 percent of their programs from independent producers, and to issue licenses for ITV and new satellite frequencies by auction.

Stage 2, which was expected to occur by the end of the 1990s, develops the number of broadcast channels and payment methods available. The Peacock Committee proposes to replace most of the BBC license fee with the income from pay-TV subscriptions. ITV continues to finance itself through advertising.

In level 3 there is an almost unlimited number of channels. Various forms of financing such as pay-channel subscriptions and individual fee-based offers have established themselves, and the variety of offers leads to a functioning broadcasting market. Although the leitmotif of the Peacock Report is consumer sovereignty, this does not exclude the existence of publicly funded offers such as news, international reports or programs on art and religion in any of the three stages. In order to distribute the corresponding funds, Peacock envisaged the establishment of a regulatory body called the Public Service Broadcasting Council.

The role of Alan Peacock for the British broadcasting system is comparable to that of Eberhard Witte, the chairman of the commission for the expansion of the technical communication system (KtK). Both economists, the economist Peacock and Witte, who was arrested in business administration, headed a commission whose recommendations should change the respective broadcasting landscape in the long term.

The KtK met from 1973 to 1976. As is well known, it proposed the implementation of cable pilot projects, one of which in 1984 led to the introduction of nationwide private television. In contrast to Witte's personal predisposition, who as a business economist preferred an exclusively market-driven system, but was slowed down in pursuit of these goals by constitutional, broadcasting and party-political requirements, Peacock always envisaged a role for jointly financed public broadcasting in a market-driven system. The criticism sometimes expressed in the British cultural and social sciences that Peacock viewed broadcasting exclusively as a market economy good and pursued a completely laissez-faire-oriented economic policy, thus comes to nothing.

Independent production quotas and license auctions

The Peacock report had denied Margaret Thatcher the opportunity to finance the BBC's advertising and was accordingly received with little friendliness. Peacock had set an agenda, namely that consumer sovereignty is best achieved through pay-TV. In order to decide how to proceed with this, the Thatcher government first set up a group of ministers to deliberate on it. In the end, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd picked a few cherries out of the report.

Independent production quotas of 25% have been introduced for both the BBC and ITV. In relation to the BBC, the license fee was indexed and Alasdair Milne was replaced by Michael Checkland. Checkland withheld a controversial "Panorama" documentary to avoid incurring government wrath and introduced a variety of efficiency and effectiveness measures to the BBC. From 1993 this line was continued by John Birt, who satisfied Thatcher's ideas insofar as he introduced an internal market within the BBC and was thus able to avert even more far-reaching reform proposals that were brought to him from outside.

Although the BBC reformed itself from within, the market-liberal agenda was imposed on the regional ITV companies. From 1991, ITV licenses were awarded through auctions. In addition, the regulatory body responsible for ITV, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which worked on friendly terms with the ITV companies, was replaced by the more liberal-oriented Independent Television Commission.

The main reason for this was that, contrary to the rather cautious approach of the BBC, the ITV company Thames Television broadcast the controversial documentary "Death on the Rock" in 1988. It is about the shooting of IRA terrorists by a special unit of the British Army in Gibraltar. To the annoyance of the Thatcher administration, the Independent Broadcasting Authority waved the broadcast through.

Thames Television failed in the bidding process against Carlton Television and ceased broadcasting on December 31, 1992. Carlton later merged with Granada to form ITV plc.

What remains?

The media policy of the Thatcher government led to the hitherto primarily socio-culturally motivated broadcasting policy being geared towards the market economy. In addition to the introduction of structural reforms in the British broadcasting landscape, Peacock's concept of consumer sovereignty is still having an impact today.

As stated in various obituaries for Thatcher, their policy was continued in many areas by the subsequent governments. In the context of media policy, Peacock's idea of ​​combining consumer sovereignty with the continuation of public broadcasting comes into play in the British debate about the split of the license fee. There is already broad consensus in the UK that the fee should not go solely to the BBC. Channel 4 is considered a hot candidate who could receive part of the future fees.


Crosspost from Carta