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24 September 2014
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Stephen Whittle

Controller of Editorial Policy

Public Service Broadcasting in the New Media Age

London, Thursday 7 February 2002
Printable version

Speech given at the IIC Broadcasting Forum


September 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.

What has that got to do with the role of public service broadcasting? Well, it’s 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.

It’s 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.

Three charts tell a quick story about how people got their news on the day and what they have been doing since.

The charts 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.

I don’t cite the charts to bang the BBC’s 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 people’s sense of reliability and value, as well as providing a sense of direction.

The historical context

That is 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.

The BBC 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 children’s, arts and religious programmes. In fact, the public service demands were more precise and exacting than those laid directly on the BBC by its Charter.

Similarly, 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.

Through 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?

New Media

Just how different we perhaps don’t 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.

The other 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. There’s 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.

A more diverse society

More diverse 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 forces.

We are 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.

Increasingly, 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 BBC’s alleged moral turpitude.

Why broadcasting is different

Faced 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 publishing?

Part of 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 society.

Television 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.

Public 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.

PSB Values

Moreover, 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.

There are some key concepts:

Universality - 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.

Quality - 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.

Distinctiveness - 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.

Range and 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.

Encouraging 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.

Independence 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. It’s why the rest of the world envies us our broadcast journalism.

Supporting 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 good laugh!

This list 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.

I believe 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.

The most 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.

This public 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.

I would argue that in today’s 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. Let’s not confuse atomization with individualism; cornucopia with riches; elitism with exclusiveness; or noise with meaning.

Part of 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.

What 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.

We have 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.

Our second 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 BBC’s 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.

The third 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.

New technologies 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.

Last, but 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.

Challenges for OFCOM

Old tensions, 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 value.

The commitment 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.


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