Policies on broadcasting and the NHS in the 1980s

“Broadcasting was one of a number of areas -the professions such as teaching, medicine and the law were others- in which special pleading by powerful interest groups was disguised as high-minded commitment to some greater good” Margaret Thatcher wrote in her memoirs: quoted on p.67 in
T. O’Malley Closedown? The BBC and Government Broadcasting Policy 1979-1992 London:Pluto 1994

The No Such Symposium compared government policies in the 1980s in relation to broadcasting and the National Health Service, and discussed the ideological basis of those policies.

Both broadcasting and the NHS had developed as services to the public as a whole, rather than businesses responding to consumer demand. For broadcasting, it was accepted that positive regulation was needed, applied to both non-commercial and commercial output. Such regulation required broadcasters to do more than just meet market demand.

But the concept of public service was under attack in the 1980s. Influential right-wing think tanks argued that state intervention in the economy was both inefficient and could lead to an authoritarian government. The basis of society should be individuals acting freely as economic and social agents -and not as collective entities — within an enabling legal framework which would regulate contracts, security and crime.

Conservative policies on both broadcasting and the NHS reflected these attitudes. Both saw a significant government report in the middle of the decade and a White Paper prefiguring a major Act of Parliament at the end. The Griffiths Report on the NHS (implemented 1984) and the Peacock Report (1986) on financing the BBC, were both oriented to “efficiency”, financial management and marketisation. They mark a decisive shift and both have a continuing influence (Key events).

Peacock Book JacketTom O’Malley gives an overview of broadcasting policy in the 1980s and the ideas which influenced it. (Broadcasting policy paper)
T.P.O’Malley and J.Jones, The Peacock Committee and UK Broadcasting Policy
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2009

Steve Iliffe describes the parallel debate about the NHS and the moves to marketisation and ‘efficiency’ within the health service, with the growth of a ‘medical-industrial complex’. (NHS paper)
Steve Iliffe, From General Practice to Primary Care: The Industrialization of Family Medicine, Oxford University Press (2008).

1n 1990 a Broadcasting Act eased the regulation of commercial radio and established a new ‘light touch’ regulator for commercial TV and satellite, the Independent Television Commission.

Sounds Book jacketTony Stoller writes:
Throughout the Eighties, the impact of this economic revolution of the Right gradually transformed all the institutions of our society, and set the tone for governments up to the credit crunch of 2008. Independent Local Radio (ILR) provides as good an illustration as you could hope to find of how the social liberal aspirations of the Seventies were subverted by the rise of market liberalism in the Eighties, before being confirmed under Major and Blair in the Nineties. (ILR paper)

He charts clear correlations between trends in the wider nation with the apparently obscure events in this often unregarded medium. He argues that progress away from the old public service model towards a new commercial medium, was halting and uneven, just as for the UK polity as a whole.
Tony Stoller, Sounds of Your Life – the History of Independent Radio in the UK, John Libbey 2010.


Dream that Died book coverRay Fitzwalter argues that “Mrs. Thatcher’s 1990 Broadcasting Act [was] perhaps the worst piece of legislation of the last 50 years”.He looks in detail at the effects of the Act, particularly on ITV.

“Her 1990 Act introduced crazy, blind one-time bids for ITV franchises which did not even work for the Government and took a great deal of money out of programme budgets; it split up ITV and Channel Four to compete against each other for ratings and money rather than programmes; it fatally weakened the regulator, opening the floodgates to lower standards and it introduced haphazard takeovers within ITV reducing competition, promoting monopoly and destroying the regional network”.
(ITV paper)

Ray Fitzwalter,
The Dream that Died – the rise and fall of ITV Leicester: Troubadour 2008.
The Dream that Died flyer

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