Friday 8 January 2021 10:05 am

Screenshot: Will Sunak save music festival season?

A weekly column from City A.M. bringing you all the biggest stories and trends in technology, media and telecoms

This week

**Media Moment of the Week: Reporting from the ruins of democracy

**A rallying cry to save music festivals

**Youtube, Talk Radio and the quagmire of online regulation

Media Moment of the Week

I usually save this spot for something a little more light-hearted — ideally some sort of reminder that the world isn’t entirely bad. This week, admittedly, I’ve failed, but I simply couldn’t ignore ITV’s coverage of a harrowing night of insurrection at the Capitol.

With violence escalating and democracy crumbling around him, Washington correspondent Robert Moore somehow kept his cool to deliver seven astounding minutes of reportage.

Will Sunak save music festival season?

It goes without saying that music festivals had a torrid 2020, but — believe it or not — things might be about to get a whole lot worse.

The prospect of crowding into a muddy field may seem a distant puddle on the horizon, but for festival organisers the planning starts now. One of the key provisions is insurance but, unsurprisingly, Covid-related cover is hard to come by. Without insurance in place, most festivals won’t be able to go ahead this year; for some, it could spell the end. 

The industry this week issued a rallying cry for support, and MPs have written to chancellor Rishi Sunak calling for a government-backed insurance scheme (rather like Pool Re, which provides terrorism cover) to be set up for live events.

The argument speaks for itself. Festivals added an estimated £1.76bn to the UK economy in 2019, and there’s a vast supply chain of ticketing agents, engineers, catering teams and more that rely on them for their livelihood. There’s also the risk of a huge brain drain and loss of musical talent if events are cancelled again, especially if other European countries manage to keep theirs going. And that’s not to mention the cultural significance of the UK music festival scene, undoubtedly the most vibrant in the world.

A government-backed insurance scheme for festivals would not be a first in this pandemic — in July the Treasury underwrote a £500m scheme for the UK film and TV industry. But for ministers, the situation is not straightforward. The government has always said it will only step in when a lack of insurance is the final barrier. While the vaccine offers hope for a return to normality this summer, it’s hard to argue that the only thing separating hordes of ravers and a rural mud bath is a lack of insurance. The government could compromise by approving a scheme that comes into force at a later date when, we hope, most of the population has been vaccinated, but this offers little comfort to organisers who must commit now.

Then there’s the problem of messaging. The government has come under heavy criticism for its comms strategy during the pandemic (not least from me). Just days into a tough new lockdown, with Boris Johnson urging people to stay at home, does giving the go-ahead for summer festivals really send off the right signals?

Of course, there’s a separate question of whether lockdown rules will be relaxed in time for festival season, not to mention whether crowds will even want to pile into Worthy Farm at the tail end of a pandemic. But without insurance, all of this is a moot point, and the ball is very much in Sunak’s court. 

Youtube, Talk Radio and the quagmire of online regulation

This week’s dose of online outrage came courtesy of Youtube, which abruptly suspended the channel of Talk Radio, the Murdoch-owned radio station known for its no-nonsense broadcasting from outspoken hosts, over breaches of its Covid-19 misinformation policy. 

Youtube reinstated the channel citing an “educational, documentary, scientific or artistic” exemption, though no doubt the public backlash and cries of censorship had a role to play. Debates over free speech aside, however, the episode highlights just how fraught the issue of online regulation is.

When broadcasting over the airwaves, Talk Radio is subject to Ofcom’s rules on impartiality. Crucially, this does not necessarily mean BBC-style neutrality. Instead, it means balance must be achieved across the full schedule. This equilibrium is the lifeblood of Talk Radio (and rivals such as LBC), which thrive off airing staunch opinions on all sides of the political spectrum.

But here’s the problem. With audiences moving online, speech radio stations are increasingly clipping the most contentious parts of their shows and farming them for clicks on social media. Once there, the programming no longer falls under Ofcom’s remit, but rather under the rules of the relevant platform.

These inconsistencies are among a litany of problems that have prompted upcoming laws cracking down on tech firms — a move vocally supported, ironically, by Murdoch-owned newspapers. Opponents of the new regulation have warned it will lead to censorship, and treading the line on this compromise will of course be crucial. But what the Talk Radio saga demonstrates is the difficulty, or even futility, of regulation in a fragmented media landscape.

Ofcom’s scope as internet regulator is still yet to be finalised, but it is not expected to apply blanket, format-agnostic rules. Nor could it feasibly regulate every piece of content. Instead, it will be charged with ensuring online platforms have suitable moderation systems in place, and will focus on removing the most egregious material.

But how will this work in practice? Will content be allowed on some platforms but not on others? Will the rules treat material differently if it comes from a broadcaster rather than a private individual? The Talk Radio sage shows these details need to be ironed out, because with no consistency across formats or platforms we risk creating a farrago of conflicting regulation that will only muddy the murky waters of the online world further.

The algorithm recommends:

  • Ministers have named Richard Sharp, a multi-millionaire former Tory party donor and Rishi Sunak’s former boss, as the new BBC chair. Could this spell a thawing of tensions between No 10 and Aunty?
  • The competition watchdog has opened a probe into Nvidia’s bumper $40bn takeover of British chip designer Arm. The deal has proved controversial, to say the least, so all eyes will be on the verdict…
  • Sky chief executive Jeremy Darroch is stepping down after 13 years in the role. He leaves a legacy of building Sky into a modern media giant, and takes with him the last vestiges of the Murdoch era.

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City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.