Global transmission: London booms as world tv hub

This article originally appeared in the July 2018 edition of NUJ Informed

Walking into the Chinese state broadcaster’s gleaming studios, Mick Hodgkin passes a galaxy of other media outlets. The offices of Yanga! (serving African markets), Aparat Media (TV content producer), Arab News, and Iran International are all close by.

Elsewhere on Chiswick Park’s sparkling new, university-style campus are the Discovery Network, Walt Disney and Paramount Pictures. Settling down to continue work preparing for China Global Television Network’s (CGTN) planned London launch, programme editor Mick Hodgkin is among hundreds, possibly thousands, of media staff now working in this west London enclave.

It is but one of the international TV hubs that have made the English capital possibly the world’s most significant global broadcasting centre. “Britain has always had a strong international broadcast sector,” says Simon Spanswick, chief executive of the UK-based Association of International Broadcasters.

“The rise of streamed broadcast content and a more general migration from radio to TV, allied with the falling entry costs to produce television, have brought a host of new entrants to the sector in the pastfew years.” He cites some of the factors drawing broadcasters to the UK (he believes that nearly 1,500 are now based here): Heathrow; a flexible and highly-skilled broadcast workforce; multitudinous established international communities; and the desirability of London life.

Most significant, however, according to Simon Spanswick, is Ofcom. “It is widely perceived to be the strongest and most transparent regulator whose work, unlike some regulators elsewhere in Europe, is not politicised.”

The UK represents 21 per cent of the European TV market output, according to a 2018 report by the European Audiovisual Observatory, with 1,203 TV channels of the 3,005 in the EU based in the UK.

Ofcom currently has 893 licences in issue that can be used to broadcast on cable and satellite; for digital terrestrial TV they have issued 135 licences.

Mick Hodgkin’s career trajectory gives some sense of how skills networks are key to this burgeoning sector. “I started at Reuters TV, spent nine years at Chanel Four News, and spent several years atAl Jazeera.”

Estimates of how many journalists CGTN is planning to hire vary from 150 to 350. There is no question, however, that state-funded broadcasters, such as Al Jazeera, Press TV and Al Araby, provide the bulk of the new employment. They are not alone, however. They have been joined by scores of much smaller operators, many of them dissidents, who choose to make programmes in London for broadcast to audiences elsewhere in the world.

Jobs created by this sector are welcome, they also provide an NUJ organising opportunity. Recognition at Al Jazeera’s London centre in 2013 was followed in 2018 by a 6 per cent pay increase and
3 per cent the following year. Constructive talks about NUJ recognition at Al Araby, where about 400 people (not all journalists) are thought to work, are in progress.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, is optimistic about opportunities in this burgeoning sector: “It is London’s talent pool that is drawing broadcasters here. We have shown what a difference NUJ organisation can make to those staffing these stations, so I am confident that, in time, we will have a string of recognition agreements in this area.

“We will also be ensuring that NUJ members don’t find themselves pressured to let standards slip.”

Her concerns are well founded – broadcasters controlled by repressive regimes can be unedifying. A string of Ofcom judgements shows how standards can slip.

Press TV’s licence was revoked in 2012 after it broadcast an interview with a Chanel 4 journalist conducted “under duress”. RT, the Russian-government-controlled channel, has been the subject of several regulatory investigations for lack of impartiality and several stations have been sanctioned for broadcasting jihadi content.

Troubling as these are, this regulatory attention is assurance that there is some check on standards and, for those who have experienced the decline of much of the UK’s traditional media, it is comforting to think that at least one part of our industry is enjoying a boom.

The illustration is The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)