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29 October 2014
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Mark Thompson

Speeches

Mark Thompson

Director-General


Broadcasting and the idea of the public

Given at the Worth Abbey Gaudium Et Spes Conference


Tuesday 5 July 2005
Printable version

A few weeks ago the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a speech about journalism.

 

Called The Media: Public Interest and Common Good, it examined the notion of the 'public interest' – which is frequently cited by journalists to justify investigations and revelations which otherwise might be regarded as intrusive and destructive – and concluded that, although the best journalism really does support the common good and the interests of a 'mature democracy', some aspects of what some British journalists do are, to use his words, 'lethally damaging' to the reputation of contemporary journalism and 'contribute to the embarrassingly low level of trust in the profession (especially in the UK) shown in most opinion polls.'

 

Predictably, the immediate response to the speech was a good deal of huffing and puffing by columnists and leader-writers.

 

Wasn't this a classic example of a defensive establishment figure moaning about a noisy, unruly but essentially healthy free press?

 

Didn't Archbishop Rowan's speech blur two fundamentally different things: the prurient invasion of the private lives of individuals by the tabloids and the robust challenging of people and institutions necessarily in the public sphere, with public duties and accountabilities?

 

I don't want to enter directly into this debate this afternoon, except to note that the Archbishop was surely right to point out that, as the old saw has it, not everything that interests the public is in the public interest, and that – and I speak, God help me, as a journalist myself – it is difficult to think of any other trade, with the possible exception of the law, which is more enthusiastic than journalism about dishing out criticism to others or more touchy about receiving it itself.

 

But there was something the Archbishop said which sent my mind off in a slightly different direction, one which follows the idea of the public or publicness, and which – to me at least – connects this idea both with what we try to do at the BBC and with some of the central themes of Gaudium et Spes.

 

And if I'm right, following this route takes us to some interesting questions about the future.

 

A necessary fiction? Let's begin with what Archbishop Rowan said: 'A public is a necessary fiction. If a journalist or broadcaster, or of course, rather more significantly, a proprietor wants to secure consumers, a sense of solidarity and loyalty has to be built up; and it is built up very effectively by two complementary strategies.

 

'One is to communicate as if every reader or consumer shared the same fundamental values and preferences and anxieties.

 

'The other is to communicate as if these fundamental values and so on were the natural moral world of everyone with a brain or a conscience.

 

'The calculation of what will surprise (or better still, shock) the public is based on a careful assessment of what is unassailable and utterly taken for granted by that public. […] The public is assumed to be homogeneous; and this particular public is assumed to be representative of the real moral life of society.'

 

In other words, a media magnate – a Citizen Kane, or perhaps a Citizen Murdoch if you like – creates a model of the public, idealised or exaggerated or perhaps merely averaged from focus-groups and surveys, and addresses every real reader or viewer both as if they were a perfect example of this model and as if the model itself represented some kind of peak of understanding and moral rectitude.

 

Readers or viewers are assured that they are both like-minded and right-minded; but the whole thing is a projection, an imprecise and commercially-motivated exercise in market segmentation rather than a genuine meeting of minds.

 

Now reading this, two lateral thoughts occurred to me.

 

The first rather unexpected one is that, if you think about it, the two strategies the Archbishop mentions – to communicate as if everyone you are talking to shares the same fundamental values and as if these fundamental values represent a common natural moral world – are strategies we normally associate with organised religion rather than with the media.

 

Christianity and Islam in particular have historically tended to present themselves to believers and non-believers alike in just these terms.

 

Are we to see the modern media in some way then as a rival to traditional religion, each outlet projecting its own claim to moral universality – a claim based not of course on revelation but on the science of marketing? Or should we look the other way at religion itself?

 

Although perfect model Daily Mail or Guardian readers probably do exist, most of us frequently find ourselves dissenting to some degree from opinions expressed in those and other newspapers which are presented as self-evident – we discover that we are not perfect members of that particular public after all.

 

We find that our sense of identity, our relationship with the newspaper is a provisional one.

 

And wise editors and proprietors are aware of this. They hire columnists with views that oppose the majority view of the paper, they allow a certain elasticity of tone and opinion.

 

Their projection of the public is rather more nuanced and negotiated than it first appears.

 

But can institutions or bodies of believers who are certain that they are in possession of absolute and definitive truths about God and human morality negotiate in this way?

 

How do they communicate with non-believers and partial believers – with, if you like, the shaded areas around their projected public?

 

That question seems to me to be one of the starting points of Gaudium et Spes.

 

But the sentence that most struck me in that passage was that first arresting one: 'a public is a necessary fiction'. It is probably true in the case of newspapers and political parties and most other apparently public communities and associations. But is it always true?

 

The BBC and the public

 

Well, interestingly, it is not true of the BBC. Indeed, I'd go further: for the BBC, the public is not a necessary fiction, it is a necessary fact.

 

There is a real public as well as a multiplicity of projected ones and, if we ever lose sight of it or of the concept of publicness, there will certainly be no further need for a BBC.

 

The point I am making is not in any sense a rhetorical one. 96% of the UK population use our services every month. 94% pay a licence-fee. To all intents and purposes, everyone uses the BBC and everyone pays for it.

 

Our public then is not white or black, not prosperous or poor, not Christian or non-Christian, not materialist or other-worldly, not progressive or traditionalist, but all these things all at once.

 

It's everybody: our universality is literal.

 

Now of course a given programme – Colin and Edith on Radio 1, an investigative documentary on BBC TWO – might well think of a particular core audience with a certain set of shared attitudes and tastes – but much of what we do reaches very large audience aggregates indeed and, taken together, our services try to address every age group, every socio-economic demographic and every geographical part of the UK as well as many hundreds of millions of people around the world.

 

So we have a real public.

 

But the concept of publicness runs deeper than usage. Rowan Williams talked rightly about the 'marketising' of the media and the consequent tendency for content to be commoditised.

 

But again, in a literal rather than rhetorical sense, the public service BBC does not operate in a market, nor does it have consumers. Because it is founded on the principle of pooled investment, the BBC as currently constituted does not compete in the selling of commercial impacts to advertisers or of subscriptions.

 

As I learned when I was Chief Executive of Channel 4, advertisers value some viewers far more than others – an affluent young woman in the 16-34 demographic has eyeballs which are worth many multiples of those of a pensioner of limited means – and this differential inevitably skews creative decisions.

 

Broadcasters like BSkyB, whose business model is based on subscription, again are incentivised to provide services which appeal to high-spending households.

 

But to the BBC, everyone – no matter what their age or income – has the same value.

 

Broadcasting – by which I mean universal free-to-air broadcasting – is, like architecture, a civic art. It is intrinsically public both in ambition and in effect.

 

It is a public space into which anyone and everyone is free to come and roam.

 

And again it's worth noting the effect of an economic model in which people do not pay at the point of use. Turning on the TV or radio or wandering through our pages on the internet does not involve an economic choice on the part of the user.

 

The goods we provide, moreover, are to all intents and purposes what economists call public goods – they do not get consumed by one person so that they cannot be enjoyed by the next.

 

The people who use the BBC's services, in other words, do not behave like consumers and nothing gets consumed.

 

In theory then, the BBC stands almost wholly outside the rather troubling picture which the Archbishop drew of contemporary media.

 

In practice, of course, things are a little more complicated.

 

First, the BBC does not exist in splendid isolation. We're part of a wider media environment. Many of our producers and journalists have been recruited from other media organisations.

 

We compete for stories and ideas with our commercial counterparts. Inevitably our editors absorb and take note of the way in which the big issues of the day are being covered with others.

 

Much of this influence is positive. Competition – including commercial competition – is good for us and our audiences. Diversity of analysis and viewpoint makes all good journalists stop and reconsider their own preconceptions.

 

Journalistic teams of diverse experience and from diverse backgrounds thicken the creative plot for us and our audiences.

 

And, I should add, I don't think a day goes by when – despite all the pressures and problems which Rowan Williams refers to – we can't learn something of value from the professionalism and talent of our commercial colleagues.

 

But there are real things to worry about too. Impartiality and objectivity are becoming rarer qualities in mainstream journalism. Historical knowledge – especially of complex international stories like Israel/Palestine – can no longer be assumed.

 

Twenty-four hour news services mean that the public can get their news pretty much when and where they like, but they can put a terrible strain on the time needed for reflection and judgement.

 

Presumption of bad faith and what used rather grandly to be called a hermeneutics of suspicion do seem to be becoming more widespread.

 

Now, it would be possible to wring one's hands and blame the zeitgeist, but over the past year at the BBC we've tried to take some practical steps to address these concerns.

 

In the aftermath of the Gilligan-Kelly-Hutton affair, we've strengthened many of our internal journalistic safeguards. We've put literally thousands of our journalists through new training courses in which issues of fair-mindedness and our absolute duty to give those against whom we make serious allegations the right to reply take centre stage.

 

We plan to create a virtual 'college of journalism' to promote the knowledge and values on which the editors and correspondents of the future can rely.

 

We've appointed new editors – for example, for Europe and the Middle East – to ensure consistency and depth in our coverage.

 

In the past few weeks, we've published new editorial guidelines for every producer and content creator in the BBC. Privacy and the particular challenge of balancing public interest arguments against the right of everyone not to be subjected to unwarranted intrusion features heavily.

 

A question of values

 

All this is as it should be and I could touch on other aspects of what the BBC does – its commitment to learning, for instance, or to creativity and cultural life – and tell a similar story of opportunities and pressures and plans.

 

But there's a larger question at stake, which is this: if we accept the idea of this larger, truer public and the civic space it occupies, what if any values can we predicate of it?

 

Given its almost limitless diversity, do we not run the risk of re-fictionalising it, as it were, if we attempt to project any given set of meaningful values on it?

 

Individuals in the crowd may well have strong and coherent values, perhaps ones we share ourselves, but these values may be contradicted by other, equally strong views held by their neighbours or by people in another part of the square.

 

This may sound like a problem calling for a moral philosopher or a theologian but again – and pretty much uniquely – it's an immediate and day-to-day issue for the BBC.

 

Let me give you a couple of examples. Pluralism and openness are vital for a broadcaster who attempts to address every individual and every community in society.

 

Different belief systems, different religious and aesthetic attitudes, different perspectives on what is and isn't acceptable in terms of taste and decency, in fact pretty much every boundary of difference will be explored and tested.

 

Even if one refuses to accept any kind of absolute set of human values, there are clearly limits around what we could call majority acceptance and majority tolerance.

 

But – particularly as the perspectives of old and young continue to diverge, especially around taste and decency – some of those limits are becoming progressively more contested.

 

Last autumn, after much reflection, we decided not to show the animated comedy Popetown. As a result, many commentators, especially those who seem to have a humanist or anti-religious agenda, concluded that we were bowing in a rather craven way to pressure from the religious lobby.

 

A few weeks later, after at least as much reflection, we decided to show a televised version of Jerry Springer: The Opera.

 

Now a different group of commentators tried to convince the world that the BBC had finally taken off its mask and revealed itself as the arch-secularist they'd always suspected it to be.

 

Move on three months and the Corporation was devoting what was to some a suspicious amount of time and coverage to the death of one Pope and the election of another.

 

I don't know what conspiracy-theorists made of our recent BBC TWO programme The Monastery, a diabolical mixture of reality TV and the rule of St Benedict set here at Worth – but I can report that on one of its showings it comfortably beat Celebrity Love Island over on ITV. Habit beats bikini shock.

 

The point is this. Any one of these decisions can be taken to be evidence of some underlying agenda – a covert or semi-covert attempt to convert the public to some particular world-view.

 

Taken together, they either reveal a plot worthy of The Da Vinci Code – you may not want to rule that out, by the way – or an organisation trying to make a series of rational decisions, each on its own merits, while taking incoming fire from both sets of trenches in what has become a shooting war about religion, taste and free speech.

 

Maintaining an open, creative space in which diversity can thrive and around which there are sensible, coherent boundaries turns out to be slightly harder than it looks.

 

Let's take a second example – our coverage of the Live 8 concerts in Hyde Park and other cities around the world this Saturday.

 

The Make Poverty History can pose very different editorial challenges for the BBC than Popetown or Jerry Springer. It has broad cross-party support and, if recent days are anything to go by, overwhelming public backing.

 

Scepticism, perhaps even opposition, exists but is muted – if there is a Please Keep Poverty Going party, it's decided to keep its head down for the moment.

 

Nonetheless, our own values, in particular our sense of our responsibility always to try to offer audiences objectivity and context, meant that – although many, many of my colleagues I'm sure supported the objectives of Live 8 wholeheartedly, we couldn't simply join the bandwagon.

 

Saturday wasn't a day for impersonal, dispassionate impartiality – and anyone who watched Jonathan Ross will know that we certainly weren't purveying that - but we did try hard to get a range of voices in.

 

The Mail On Sunday had great fun with a list of ten guidelines – or 'commandments' as they inevitably dubbed them – which we'd issued before the event.

 

Here's a sample: 'The BBC cannot present one solution to world poverty'. And that's true – it's our job to reflect the wider public mood, to allow people at home to celebrate and share in great moments of common experience and empathy, but it's also our job to carry on finding space for the awkward questions too.

 

We've presented a major season of programmes about Africa in recent days, many of them on peaktime BBC ONE. The joy and the hope – those resonant words – of Live 8 was a fitting part, and an emotional climax to that season. But so too was Fergal Keane's sombre Panorama from Darfur a day later.

 

In the world of Rowan Williams' fictional public, it's tempting for media proprietor and public to collude, to stick to the comfortable and the popular.

 

Sometimes it's the BBC's role to break the spell. Live 8 was a great success and an amazing achievement by Bob Geldof, Richard Curtis and many others. We were proud to bring it to many millions of people in this country and perhaps two billion people around the world.

 

But I'm also proud that, uncomfortable though it sometimes was, we remembered that it was an important part of the story, not the whole story.

 

Engaging with an open society

 

But the dilemmas I've talked about arise not because the public space in which the BBC operates is value-free; but because it is teeming with values, many of them passionately held.

 

One often hears people inveighing against the amorality of contemporary society. It's true, as I've suggested, that some moral standards which were once widely accepted, are now disputed and that we bump into many of these disputes in broadcasting: the use of foul language, the limits of secular propriety, the respect due to organised religion and so on.

 

If you define public morality entirely around these issues and take a traditional view on all of them, then you may well believe that we are living through a period of moral degradation.

 

But it would have been hard to walk through the crowds at Hyde Park on Saturday, or watch news pictures of the Edinburgh march; to witness the public response to the tsunami at the start of the year or to Comic Relief a few months later; to see the interest and respect with which our audiences marked the passing of John Paul II; hard to see any of these things and conclude that the public at large holds no moral concerns in common.

 

I asked a few minutes ago what values we could predicate of my maximal definition of the public.

 

Despite the areas of contention, I believe that the list of values held by an overwhelming majority of people is a long one: respect for the common law; a concern for the protection of the vulnerable and the disadvantaged; a strong sense of natural justice and fair play; a hunger for honesty and the truth; an empathy with suffering; an acknowledgement of the centrality of human dignity.

 

And I haven't plucked this list out of the air – all of these values are visible in the public's reaction to what we broadcast, the judgements they make about individual programmes and editorial judgements the thousands of letters and emails I receive.

 

For the majority of our audience, the public space we broadcast into is also a moral space. The emphasis and expression of the values may change – as programmes like Big Brother famously show, many viewers today clearly take a broader view of what personal human dignity consists of than would have been the case a generation ago – but it is not obvious that these set of values is in aggregate decline.

 

As the events of this week have shown, collective concern about global poverty seems to be on the rise, to take only one example.

 

Two anthropologies

 

If we go back to where I began with Rowan Williams' definition of the small public, the convenient public of the media proprietor, and compare it to this second, maximal public, it's as if one is considering two rival anthropologies: the first narrow, explicit, instrumental; the second expansive and inclusive.

 

Values in the first are clear and uniform but also in some sense imposed, top down; values in the second are uneven and at the margins disputed but also seem to spring naturally from a sense of what human beings are capable of.

 

This second anthropology, in other words, is less ordered than the first but also more positive in its orientation, more optimistic even.

 

And this for me is precisely where Gaudium et Spes comes in. Because to me – and I speak, I should say without being encumbered by a single ounce of theological knowledge – the issue which the Constitution deals with is exactly the 'maximal public' which I have been describing and the way in which the Church should engage with it and interact with it: 'The world the Council has in mind then is the world of men, the entire human family, its whole environment; the world which is the theatre of human history, marked with man's industry, his triumphs and disasters.'

 

There is a new and fresh sense – a 'grateful appreciation' – of how the Church itself benefits from its location in the heart of the wider human environment and a remarkably strong statement of the value of openness and freedom in society: 'Culture springs from the rational and social nature of man' continually therefore it needs proper liberty to develop itself and scope to operate autonomously.

 

Quite rightly, then, it commands respect and is in a certain sense inviolable, saving the rights of persons and the community and within the limits of the common good.

 

The Council declares that 'there are two distinct orders of knowledge', that of faith and that of reason, and that the Church plainly does not forbid that 'human learning and arts… should use their own principles and methods in their own fields.'

 

In other words, 'recognising this just liberty', she affirms the rightful autonomy of human culture and especially of the sciences.'

 

Gaudium et Spes pictures the Church not as a separate 'small' public, a projected 'we' defined at least in part by its rejection of other cultures, but as a community in continual dialogue with the largest human community that can be imagined.

 

Although it is utterly clear about the Church's unique mission and unique claim to the truth, it sees engagement with the world not as a struggle for separation or for victory but as a kind of affirmative dialectic.

 

And it understands that this dialectic is only possible if the openness of society, 'this just liberty', this 'rightful autonomy of human culture' is maintained.

 

It also does not confuse pluralism with relativism. In the years since Guadium et Spes was written, some have wondered whether what Cardinal Scola calls in his introduction to the latest edition this 'changed attitude to the contemporary world' didn't represent a kind of selling of the pass.

 

But I believe that's wrong. In an open society, defective, even wicked ideas may be expressed or promoted, but there's a big difference between respecting people's right to say or believe what they want to and feeling that you have to give every view and equal status or somehow agree with everyone at the same time.

 

And it's dangerous to blur proper opposition to the false and negative beliefs which an open society permits with opposition to the virtue of openness itself.

 

Consider rather the role Jonathan Sachs, the Chief Rabbi, assigns to the idea of conversation in his book The Dignity of Difference: 'In a debate one side wins, the other loses but both are the same as they were before.

 

'In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective.

 

'This is not to say that either side gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. In a plural society – all the more so in a plural world – each of us has to settle for less than we do when we associate with fellow believers.

 

'Yet what we lose is more than compensated for by the fact that together we are co-architects of a society larger than we could construct on our own.

 

'Society is a conversation scored for many voices. But it is precisely in and through that conversation that we become conjoint authors of our collective future.'

 

This notion of the bigger conversation, a conversation which does not dilute or vitiate belief but which enriches it, seems to me to be at the heart of Gaudium et Spes.

 

And it's difficult to read the Gospels, isn't it, without believing that our religion began as a conversation - a conversation in the street or around the dinner table, a conversation between believers and non-believers, a conversation from which no-one was excluded.

 

The future of publicness

 

Perhaps I could end with a few thoughts about the future of what I've called public space or the idea of a universal public.

 

In his book The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper identified classical Athens as the first society which could be described as open.

 

He also identified its first opponents – Critias and Plato – men who believed that openness would lead inevitably to anarchy and social collapse and that the only solution was a return to a closed, effectively tribal society.

 

Again, I think we can see Plato's Republic as yet another projection of a 'small public', tightly defined and tightly controlled with freedom and inclusion sacrificed as the price for security.

 

Every age – and every institution – probably has its Platos, but I think we stand right now at an interesting point in the endless dynamic between the open and the closed, and at least from where I'm sitting the forces ranged on both sides seem formidable.

 

Publicness is under attack and from a number of different directions. Probably the greatest threat the BBC itself faces is from a group of economists – not all economists, by the way, perhaps not even a majority, but an influential group nonetheless – who have an in principle objection to the idea of free-to-air broadcasting, especially if paid for by a compulsory licence-fee.

 

As soon as technology allows, they would rather move to a world where consumers purchased audio-visual content in the way they purchase other goods, one transaction at a time.

 

This part of public space – and I believe that broadcasting is one of the most important parts of all public space – would become private. But there are other threats too. Extremists are getting adept at using the new technologies not just to make their case legitimately but to threaten.

 

The campaign against the broadcast of Jerry Springer was internet and email driven. Nothing wrong in that of course - and I have to say that the overwhelming majority of emails we received were courteous and thoughtful.

 

But the internet allowed the group Christian Voice to post the names, phone numbers and private addresses of some of my colleagues.

 

As a result – though I accept it may well not have been Christian Voice's intention – there were a number of threats of violence against them and their families.

 

Most days in the news, not just here but around the world, there are examples of technology and the vulnerabilities of open, democratic societies being exploited by the intolerant.

 

But there is another, quite different side to the story. As we showed on Saturday and perhaps will again when the G8 leaders meet in Gleneagles tomorrow, technology is also an extraordinarily powerful force in joining humanity together, of creating a public space which is little short of global.

 

And, although people worry endlessly and properly about the dangers of cyberspace, or how untrammelled freedom of communication and association can be abused, it seems to me that these technologies are finally both liberating and empowering: it is no accident that repressive societies regard the internet as a profoundly dangerous and subversive development.

 

In its own way, moreover, the internet has reinforced that idea of public space as free space, or more precisely space which is not fully marketised, where you can wander and look and converse without every action becoming a transaction.

 

Forty years on, Gaudium et Spes seems far-sighted in its intuition of the coming of this world and in its hope not just for the Church but for the whole of humanity.

 

It recognises in a striking and fresh way that human liberty and plurality support rather than hinder its own mission in the world and emphasises a view of humanity which is fully continuous with its own understanding of the unique and definitive climax of God's self-communication in the Incarnation.

 

It calls for human institutions to be 'gradually brought into harmony with spiritual purposes', though it adds rather wistfully and very possibly with the BBC in mind, 'this may take a long time.'

 

That is no doubt right, though I would argue that it is the Constitution's simultaneous awareness of the magnitude of the task and the possibility of the task that lends it force and credibility.

 

And it points to a specifically Christian anthropology – one which recognises that Christians themselves, to quote Karl Rahner, 'have not known enough, or loved enough, or suffered enough,' but that they share a nature with the rest of mankind that with God's grace is capable of anything.

 

Now, not everyone accepts the faith in which that optimism is grounded - but the optimism itself is something to share and build on, part of the wider challenge of connecting and engaging humanity in which secular institutions like the BBC have a role to play alongside the central role which the church sees for herself - in leading that conversation which excludes no-one, which can deepen and fortifies, and which will never end.

 

Thank you.



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