Public Service Broadcasting in the New Media Age
Thursday 7 February 2002
given at the IIC Broadcasting Forum
11 has been a defining moment for us all. Those horrific events in New
York and Washington have indeed shaken the kaleidoscope. We have felt
their impact as citizens, because of the savage violation of civil society.
We have also felt their impact as consumers, as the tremors reached
into the heart of the world economy.
that got to do with the role of public service broadcasting? Well, its
at times like these, when we have a greater sense of public space and
of public interest (not to say community), that public service broadcasting
comes into its own as a place where people come together.
at times like this, that you realise that, even if we are a more diverse
and fragmented society that in the Twenties or Thirties, with a plethora
of media choice at our disposal, there is still a need for a place where
people feel they are being told the truth about what is happening; where
they can rely on impartial analysis to help them make sense of events;
and where a debate can take place in which all voices can be heard,
including those who might wish to question the course being set.
tell a quick story about how people got their news on the day and what
they have been doing since.
reveal just how important television remains as a source of news. On
the day, 33 million people (52% of the population) turned to BBC TV
News. But the BBC is also a significant news provider across different
platforms. 47% of all adults say they have used various BBC services
to follow events since September 11, and 39% of the elusive 15-34 year
olds. The services were also rated highly.
cite the charts to bang the BBCs drum, but to draw your attention
to various facts. First, note how significant broadcasting is, and remains,
as a provider of information, but note also the growing importance of
the Internet. Second, observe how the BBC still occupies a central place
in peoples sense of reliability and value, as well as providing
a sense of direction.
no accident. I believe it has a lot to do with the way the original
decisions were made about broadcasting in Britain as a public and not
merely private asset. From the outset, Britain took the route of public
service rather than public profit.
was, of course, the first public service broadcaster and indeed held
a monopoly right up to 1956. When ITV was eventually allowed to come
into being, it was as a public service commercial broadcaster with specific
requirements as to impartiality and a diverse schedule including childrens,
arts and religious programmes. In fact, the public service demands were
more precise and exacting than those laid directly on the BBC by its
when Channel 4 was created it was given an even clearer and challenging
public service remit. Independent Local Radio and Independent National
Radio were also required to be, in some sense, public servants through
the provision of an impartial, quality news service, and the requirements
to secure a range of formats and a variety of music. At a later date,
Channel 5, with its more limited terrestrial coverage, was still given
some public service obligations.
Charter and Agreement and the regulatory powers of the ITC and the Radio
Authority, all terrestrial broadcasters in Britain are still required
to serve the public as opposed to the merely private interest of shareholders
and proprietors. The expectation is that the next Communications Act
will continue that tradition. But the big question is: how to define
PSB in a much more competitive broadcast ecology, with the challenge
of new media services, and a very different society?
different we perhaps dont need reminding. But a few indicators
might be instructive. The BBC now broadcasts 40 hours across all its
services for each actual hour and provides around 1.7 million web pages.
If you have the inclination and the cash you can access well over 400
channels of television. In addition, there are now over 250 local commercial
radio stations. New digital channels will extend that choice exponentially.
Almost a third of Britons now have access to the Web, and over 66% have
a mobile phone.
consequence of new media seems to be ever greater consolidation of ownership,
ever greater concentration on target audiences which advertisers want
to buy and/or which can afford high subscription payments. Theres
an ever greater belief that they are in the business of giving listeners
and viewers what they want and an ever greater justification that whatsoever
interests the public is in the public interest. As Richard Hooper, chair
of the Radio Authority, has pointed out, the danger is that plurality
and diversity would diminish in the absence of a strongly funded and
self-confident system of public service broadcasting.
media use is matched by a more diverse society, with a rise in single
living and a decline in the number of households containing children.
The rich are getting richer, while the poor experience a reduction of
income in real terms. More than one in three births are outside of marriage;
and marriage itself is under pressure. There has been a general loss
of confidence in the old institutions Parliament, the legal system,
the churches - people are more likely to put their trust in the armed
becoming more individually driven in both our consumerism and in our
moral universe. "Independence" rates higher than "community";
"self belief" more than "faith". There is a real
tension between freedom and responsibility.
too, we do not find the same things funny or the same issues offensive.
Much will depend on your age, sex, education, or the part of the country
from which you come. Mrs Whitehouse used to blame the BBC and the Wednesday
Play for the decline in morality in Britain, but the same movements
in relation to sexual freedom and expression, and the decline in respect
for traditional authority figures, are visible in every European country
from Portugal to the Russian Federation, even without the benefit of
the BBCs alleged moral turpitude.
broadcasting is different
with all that, should we simply give up on our traditional approach
to PSB? Why should we treat broadcasting as different to the press or
my response would be to do with where I began and the concept of the
public space and community. My argument would be that broadcasting,
and especially television, remains not just a creative medium of entertainment
but also a key channel of information. It is the means, especially at
times of crisis or difficulty, of providing some social glue in a fragmented
remains a potent and powerful medium, a reflector and sometimes an influencer
of society. Indeed, it only really works when it reflects our experiences
back to us. We have to be able to recognize what we are being shown
as our truth, our experience, our reality. As broadcasters, we are dealing
with a sophisticated and discriminating set of audiences who judge the
output according to their own life scripts. If we do not reflect them
accurately, we cease to be trusted. Those Wednesday Plays were in a
real sense reflecting the zeitgeist.
service broadcasters, no matter the source of their funding, have a
significant role to play in contributing to that public good by providing
the public space that can and does support both the democratic and cultural
process and in so doing affirms our sense of society.
in a digital universe of a myriad channels in which a thousand flowers
of creativity bloom, there will still be an important role to be played
by known players who will take the trust they earned in the analogue
world together with the public service values they embody into the digital
future. Part of that trust comes from being able to rely on the public
service broadcasters to provide as impartial and accurate a picture
of the world as possible. Their value is also that they seek to serve
everyone at some point or another. They are gathering points.
some key concepts:
- Public Service Broadcasting needs to be universally available, and
free at the point of delivery. Universality is, properly understood,
not only a technical, but a programme concept - across its channels
and services, a public service broadcaster (particularly one financed
by a universal licence fee) needs to appeal to all parts of its audience.
In these days of subscription television, it is more important than
ever to entertain, inform and educate everyone including those without
the money to pay for subscription services.
- Public Service programmes - whatever the genre - should be of the
highest quality in terms of concept, acting, scriptwriting, performance
and general production values. Even soaps like EastEnders demonstrate
this; UK originated programming made primarily for a UK audience, with
high production values, bringing on new writing and acting talent.
- A Public Service broadcaster should amongst other things be supplementing
the market, covering areas which straightforwardly commercial broadcasters
would not. A good public service broadcaster needs to find new genres
but also revitalise old ones. We really do still need to make the popular
good as well as making the good popular. Making the good popular are
programmes like Horizon and Timewatch; and very recently Rolf on Art,
which, despite the elitist sniff, brought serious art criticism to audiences
of up to 6.8 million on BBC ONE in peak time, a bigger audience than
any previous programme about the visual arts.
Diversity - Public Service Broadcasting needs to cover the full range
of genres - the BBC lists 22 in its annual report - and be diverse in
its coverage of them. And it needs to pay careful attention to scheduling,
especially news, and to the mix of programmes in peak time. We scheduled
a religious documentary, Son of God - the Real Man, peaktime on Sunday
evenings and it attracted 5.4 million viewers 21.2% share.
Culture and Creativity - Public Service Broadcasters should encourage
culture in its broadest sense, and provide an important stimulus to
creativity in directing, producing, writing, acting and all the performing
arts, in the nations and regions as well as within the M25 taking
risks and investing in new content. Above all they should be supporting
indigenous talent, whether it be in front of or behind the camera.
and Impartiality - In news and current affairs coverage, public service
broadcasters should set the highest standards of independence, impartiality,
and the redress of complaints. All the UK news organisations can be
proud of what they achieved on and immediately after September 11th.
Its why the rest of the world envies us our broadcast journalism.
national life and contributing to democratic debate - A public service
broadcaster should reflect the different parts of the nation to the
nation as a whole, and act, in a devolved and multi-cultural United
Kingdom, as the bridge that offers everyone a common cultural experience.
Whether for September 11th, for elections, or for football, or a really
of criteria is not exhaustive. But a broadcaster who fails to meet most
of them, most of the time, cannot I think legitimately lay claim to
the public service title.
that three things are essential if PSBs in this and other countries
are not to ossify:
We must try to ensure a plural public service offering for as long as
possible. A BBC monopoly would not serve the interests of the audience.
· In order to ensure this the PSB model must be allowed to evolve
and regulatory structures should reflect this.
· Finally, we need to accept that universal access for audiences
to public services through all the new technologies is an issue which
cannot be left to the market.
crucial issue is that public service broadcasting must be allowed to
evolve both in programming and in regulation. The BBC has always dedicated
itself to serving audiences and the public interest through new communications
systems whether it was harnessing short wave to broadcast round
the world in 1933 or developing the first television.
space will remain important as a means of providing the contemporary
"agora": a place where people can meet to talk out loud about
the issues of abiding importance or the challenges that confront them.
It is a place which can enable some sense of social cohesion and debate.
argue that in todays society that has to do with questioning the
assumption that everything is relative, or that there is little of lasting
value. Post-modernism needs to be tested just as much as the pomposity
or elitism of the past. Indeed, we should beware of a new elitism that
suggests that nothing is too bad for the masses. Lets not confuse
atomization with individualism; cornucopia with riches; elitism with
exclusiveness; or noise with meaning.
our responsibility is encouraging and enabling our audiences to explore
the landscape of the mind. This is not a demand for the worthy or the
boring but a new sense of creativity and commitment to stretching and
exciting our audiences to experience and enjoy the things they might
never have guessed they would like. It involves ambition, risk and thought.
Otherwise known as art.
does that mean in practice?
As I said
at the beginning, our news has to be truthful, even when inconvenient,
informed, reliable, and never distorted to the point where people are
lead to false conclusions.
to give people the context and the background so that they grasp the
significance of what they are being told. We should deal fairly and
never allow the end to justify unacceptable means. And so far as is
humanly possible, we should avoid harm to individuals by deliberate
cruelty, ridicule or the invasion of privacy.
major responsibility is to develop our national cultural traditions
by using the public money we receive to discover, develop and invest
in the very best of our talent in every area of artistic expression,
both classical and popular drama, story telling, song, the visual
arts, dance and so on. The BBCs role is to find the people and
the ideas and the talents, which may become commercially successful,
but at this moment represent innovation and risk. That is the privilege
and the responsibility of public funding.
It is not
an argument about market failure as it may well turn out to be market
success. It is about ensuring that we grow talent and allow it to experiment
and flourish as well as investing in the known and the tested. A publicly
funded broadcaster should not be a dull broadcaster but one that is
seeking to respond to its many audiences by providing something of value
to them all. The test is whether it is the best of its type, be it soap,
quiz, comedy, documentary or drama, and that it finds its place in a
diverse schedule of quality programmes, at a time when the potential
audience can view.
area that marks out the publicly funded broadcaster should be the support
given to the process of life long learning. Again, this is not about
dull, improving programmes that no one in their right mind might make
a date with, but using the creative resources of production talent,
whether within or without, to excite, stimulate and engage audiences
into making their own learning journeys.
make it possible to use new learning techniques to support traditional
linear programmes. Interactivity via CD rom or DVD or the web brings
a new dimension to the documentary or the skills programme, or the drama.
The Blue Planet is a recent example. Again, it can enhance society and
not just the individual. It is an issue of public space.
by no means least, public funding means being truly accountable for
what we do and how we do it. We aim to set a standard in terms of what
programmes we make, how we make them and why we make them. We have to
be prepared to explain and where necessary defend, the decisions that
we take and have the courage and the grace to admit when we make mistakes.
Our editorial guidelines are available to all, as are our promises of
performance. Making clearer the means of accountability will be a significant
challenge over the next few years.
new challenges. As the debate over the next Communications Bill intensifies,
some of these issues will come into sharper focus. Yes, the new world
will open up new channels and offer a myriad of choices. Many will argue
that this choice renders the old rules obsolete. But there is still
a value in supporting that sense of the public space where the rules
are clear, and where people can be sure of something that offers real
to accuracy, the telling of truth, and providing an opportunity for
those voices to be heard, is a crucial part of our democracy. I believe
it enables our audiences to understand what is happening in the world
as well as giving them the opportunity to make informed choices. It
remains a vital contribution.