Three-D Issue 35: The BBC and Beyond: Reimagining Public Media

Deborah Grayson
Goldsmiths, University of London

Public media are under attack. Boris Johnson has made it clear that the funding and remit of the BBC is up for grabs and that the privatisation of Channel 4 may soon be under consideration. Meanwhile, the launch of GB News and Murdoch’s News UK TV channel will move Britain’s public conversations further to the right and provide new platforms for undermining the entire concept of public service broadcasting. The BBC is accused of political bias from all sides, under pressure from government, commercial competitors and a public who trust its journalism less and less. And though some independent media are flourishing online, their business models are precarious, while corporate social media platforms are flooded with clickbait and disinformation.

Yet the need for public media – independent and accountable media institutions which are run in the public interest – has never been clearer. Major shocks like the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have shown how essential it is to have an independent and financially secure public media sector, precisely to act as a counterweight to growing government influence over the media, the ‘clickbait’ logic of commercial organisations, and private sector concentration in the tech and media sectors. The near future may be even more turbulent, as the financial impact of the mishandled pandemic hits home, and the constitutional crisis brewing in the devolved nations reaches boiling point. We are very far from having the media that we need to navigate these tricky waters – and in a deeply polarised society, there is little agreement on the root cause of the problem, let alone what the solution might be.

The BBC and Beyond: Reimagining Public Media is a new campaign from the Media Reform Coalition, aiming to host a conversation about how we defend and re-envision public media in the digital age. Over the coming year, we will be working with political parties, trade unions, media organisations and broader civil society to engage in creative, collective thinking about the kind of media we need to face the huge challenges ahead. While there will be a focus on how public service broadcasting can be renewed and updated for the current social and technological context, we are defining ‘public media’ more broadly to include the media cooperatives and community media who are finding innovative ways to foster participation and accountability with their audiences.

In the first half of 2021, will be holding public events with partners around the UK, exploring how public media relate to questions such as labour rights, protest, international coverage of the pandemic, and the climate crisis. These conversations will help us develop a Manifesto for a People’s Media, that will highlight best practices from across the UK tech and media landscape and propose a series of policy recommendations. The Manifesto will be discussed with politicians and public service broadcasters, and will be fed into the BBC mid-term charter review in 2022, as well as connected issues such as tackling concentrations of media ownership and universal broadband.

The campaign, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, will doubtless face some challenges. We believe it is vitally important that the constituencies engaged in media reform extend outside of academics and policy wonks, and that making the conversations accessible and relatable is crucial. Yet it is also a complex area, especially as truly ‘public media’ is in many ways an aspiration rather than a reality. There will also be a balance to be struck to try and hold together a coalition of liberal reformers, who are understandably defensive of public service broadcasters given the relentless attacks from the right, along with more radical left-wing constituencies who are increasingly frustrated with those institutions.

The first meeting takes place at the Media Democracy Festival on 20th March. We hope very much that members of MeCCSA will join us and be part of the conversation to reimagine what our public media can be. (See for further details.)

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