Departmental Changes Risk Delaying Key UK Media Legislation

Dan Meier 06 March, 2023 

For those who have lost count, the UK now has its 13th Culture Secretary in as many years, with Lucy Frazer replacing Michelle Donelan as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Donelan meanwhile has moved to the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which absorbs the digital remit formerly under DCMS.

Out with the new

The reshuffle could prove unlucky for some in the media and advertising industry, not least because of the delays that come with briefing a new minister. “It seems inevitable that there will be a need for them to get up to speed,” comments Ciara Kalmus, SVP at economic consultancy Compass Lexecon. “There will also be time taken at the department to get used to new management and new teams.”

At the same time, the formation of DSIT could make digital policy subject to delays. “Establishing the new department, briefing the new minister and recruiting civil servants with the necessary skills and experience will take time,” agrees Oz Watson, senior associate in the Commercial, Technology & Data team at law firm Taylor Wessing.

Lost in the (re)shuffle

This will likely affect the timeframe for the government’s legislative agenda for media, particularly those bills already “kicked down the road” by Brexit. Watson notes that the government is “undertaking a massive exercise” to understand what EU law to retain and what to repeal, while regulators stress the need to confront rapid changes in digital consumption.

“Lots of government time has been diverted to managing Brexit and repealing EU legislation,” remarks Watson. “The UK runs the risk of falling behind its European neighbours in having robust legislation governing digital markets.”

The Media Bill

Of particular importance to the broadcast sector, the Media Bill includes protections for the prominence and availability of public service broadcasters (PSBs) on connected TVs. “It’s previously been recommended for several years from Ofcom, but it’s becoming extremely urgent,” says Kalmus, who was previously the watchdog’s Economic Director. “There are currently no rules that apply to CTV devices.”

These proposals were somewhat overshadowed by former-former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ emphasis on the privatisation of Channel 4. When Donelan ultimately dropped those plans, the Media Bill was paused, and with it the updates to decades-old legislation that makes no mention of the internet. “The 2003 Communications Act is all about linear TV, it’s completely out of date,” states Kalmus. “And this is just an example of inertia, that over time there is a necessity to bring rules up to date.”

The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill

The catchily titled Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill is designed to give the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) new powers to intervene in the tech sector to promote competition. Under the recommendations of the 2019 Furman Report, the CMA has set up a Digital Markets Unit (DMU) responsible for designating companies as having “Strategic Market Status”, making them subject to an enforceable code of conduct.

But until the passage of the bill, the DMU effectively has no powers. “Even when it finally does get passed, it will take a while before it’s properly implemented,” argues Kalmus. “First there will need to be a consultation as to which firms would be designated with Strategic Market Status, and then the potential codes of conduct that would apply. So that is probably another couple of years before anything would actually become enforced in practice.”

Meanwhile the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) has come into force, overtaking the UK’s lead in protecting consumer choice. “Whilst this lack of regulation may be attractive to some online service providers, most are already undertaking significant preparatory work in readiness for compliance with the DSA,” observes Watson. “Consumers have been asking for this legislation for some time now and will likely become increasingly frustrated at the government’s apparent lack of progression in this space.”

The Online Advertising Programme (and Online Safety Bill)

Intended to impose controls over harmful content on social media, the Online Safety Bill has already suffered severe delays amid ongoing amendments and arguments around free speech. The Online Advertising Programme aims to address the advertising piece of the puzzle, with a view “to tackle the evident lack of transparency and accountability across the whole supply chain.”

Online advertising has raised concerns over transparency from advertiserspublishers and child safety advocates, but the departmental migration of the digital brief threatens to prolong those issues. “Whilst the establishment of a specific department for science and innovation is inherently a positive step for the tech and start-up ecosystem, the timing of the move will certainly cause delay to the finalising of the Online Safety Bill and the next steps in the Online Advertising Programme,” says Watson.

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