COMMUNICATIONS NEWS: Jowell hints at change in foreign TV coverage

Broadcasters may be legally required to cover international issues under the forthcoming Communications Bill following intense lobbying by development charities.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell told Oxfam and a group of other charities last month that she was "sympathetic

to their argument that international issues should be included under public service programming. The term will be legally defined for the first time under the Bill.

Don Redding, campaign co-ordinator, said: "Public service broadcasting hasn't been defined in law before. In the past agreements were made by each individual channel. So we wanted to ensure that international issues didn't get lost in the first-ever legal definition of the term."

Development charities are worried by research showing that factual international programming levels have fallen by more than half over the past decade. If this dumbing down continues it could eventually erode their supporter base.

"Charities need a constituency of people in the UK who are interested and committed to these issues,

said Redding. "These people will then be predisposed to become future supporters."

Two hundred and sixty development and environmental NGOs will now be watching to see if the Bill, when it is published this autumn, contains the crucial amendment. They also want ITV1 and Channel 5 to be covered by the legislation and new regulator Ofcom to hold the broadcasters accountable.

The Bill is not just of interest to international charities. Organisations with a domestic remit including Age Concern, RSPB, the Dyslexia Institute and Guide Dogs for the Blind are all worried about how a decline in factual programming could affect their campaigns.

Katrina Webster, co-ordinator of Public Voice, the voluntary-sector campaign for communications reform, said: "Broadcasters need to be held accountable to the audience as citizens as opposed to consumers. Broadcasting can't be regulated in the same way as gas or electricity.

"Fewer factual programmes means there are limited opportunities to discuss domestic issues relevant to these charities."

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