Three-D Issue 27: The status quo won’t do: a very critical defence of public service media

Academics like to talk of ‘critical junctures’: moments of great instability when different pressures and crises come together to produce the possibility of dramatic change. I don’t think it would be too controversial to argue that we are facing a such a juncture in relation to the public service media landscape. With the pace of technological change, the emergence of very powerful new producers and platforms, shifts in consumption habits and a far more competitive advertising market, this is a pretty unstable set of circumstances. And that’s without even talking about the latest variables – Brexit, the election of Trump, the attacks on the independence of broadcasters across Europe and the rise of xenophobia as a mobilizing force – and the multiple anxieties that these reflect.

Brexit poses a particular challenge for UK public service broadcasters because it raises questions about what kind of content and services are required to address (and perhaps to heal) the divisions that have been exposed (and that have intensified) in recent months. It forces us to think about the media’s involvement in what Mark Thompson has called a ‘crisis of public language’ and the failure of large sections of the media to cultivate an informed and reasoned debate that connects to and, where necessary, challenges, the preoccupations of millions of people in this country.

I was involved with Lord Puttnam’s Inquiry into the future of public service television. The themes explored in its final Report – including questions concerning the relationship between PSBs and representation, accountability, independence and diversity – were all connected to the political sensibilities that gave rise to the ‘leave’ vote and that will be played out for years to come. Television – particularly because of its status as the most popular news source – is one of the key institutions that ought to be forensically examined and challenged if it’s to operate effectively in the public interest.

One of the main aims of the Inquiry was simply to raise the salience of TV as a policy issue and to stimulate a debate on the purposes and place of public service television in the UK today. But the other central objective was to highlight how important it is to think imaginatively about change. Where our public service broadcasters have failed to meet the challenges posed by the rise of the xenophobic right, to protect their own independence in the face of attacks from both state and market, to stand up to and monitor powerful interests, and to successfully represent the full diversity of their audiences, then it isn’t enough to fall back on the status quo.

Populist voices on the right are very effective at attacking the failures of what they describe as the ‘liberal media’; why are progressives so often wedded to an uncritical defence of a media system that is intertwined with elite voices and interests? We might want to remember how Raymond Williams differentiated between the idea of public service and its actual institutional forms: ‘the idea of public service shouldn’t be used as a cover for a paternal or even authoritarian system’. If a public service is not serving the wider public, then we need ‘to create new kinds of institutions’ based firmly on the principle that ‘the active contributors have control of their own means of expression.’

Given the distortions of wholly commercial media cultures, the public may benefit from a public service ecology but we need to radically improve what is an increasingly fragile and delegitimised system. So while PSBs should continue to receive special privileges – such as EPG protection and universal funding (such as in the case of the BBC) and other benefits that will have to be developed for a platform age – they will have to earn these privileges. This will require a commitment to constantly raise their game and to generate the innovative, relevant and challenging content and services that their audiences are demanding in a hugely volatile environment.

We shouldn’t be frightened by the prospect of change but instead campaign for meaningful reform. In relation to the BBC, for example, this might include:

Of course, it will also require us to challenge government not to further diminish but to enhance independent public service media. That is why Lord Puttnam’s Inquiry recommended a series of ‘digital innovation grants’ aimed at cultural and non-profit organizations, some of whom are already producing what is effectively public service content; and also why the National Union of Journalists and the Media Reform Coalition are campaigning to amend the Digital Economy Bill to introduce a small levy on the revenues of the largest digital intermediaries and to redistribute that money to new grassroots journalists.

In conclusion, we need to foster new types of public service content for the digital age; we need our public service media to cater more effectively for all audiences; we need urgently to address some of the barriers to entry both on- and off-screen; and, crucially, we need public service media that are strong enough to scrutinize and challenge the lies and misrepresentations that surround us. That can only be achieved if we move beyond a defensive stance and seek both to imagine and to construct wholly new types of public service content providers.

This is an expanded version of an article originally published by the LSE Media Policy Project.

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