Public Service Vitality or More of the Same?

The future of Public Service Broadcasting Report from the House of Lords Committee Select Committee on Communications and Digital affairs ask an important question. In a rapidly changing world of global media and communications consolidation, what future is there for public service broadcasting in the UK? The report looks at how the BBC, Channel Four and other public service media are being affected by the shift towards online subscription services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and soon Disney+.

Focussing on television, the report notes three main areas of concern, in which traditional broadcast organisations struggle to compete against the financial and marketing outlay of the transnational media giants. The report asks if our present public service broadcasters have sufficient capacity and finance to make content and provide services that stand-up against the power of the new providers? The report also asks if all parts of of our communities are being sufficiently served by the programming provision of the public service broadcasters? And, in addition, the report also asks if there too much concentration in London of production development and the commissioning of programming relevant to life elsewhere in the UK?

The report identifies two strands that characterise what public service broadcasting is about. First, there is the BBC tradition, with the corporation giving evidence to the committee that they aim to “inform, educate and entertain,” while also creating “distinctive content across all genres and in specialist areas such as religion, arts, music and children’s” programming. The BBC has a focus, according to the report, to “deliver impartial and accurate news that supports our democracy.” While, above all, the BBC is expected to “serve the UK—reflecting the diversity of its nations and regions, telling distinctively British stories and bringing the nation together.”

Similarly, Ofcom proposes that public service broadcasting can be defined by it’s ability to inform our “understanding of the world,” to stimulate “knowledge and learning,” to reflect the “UK’s cultural identity,” and to represent “diversity and alternative viewpoints.” In addition, and according to Ofcom’s evidence recorded by the committee, public service broadcasting should also aim to be of high-quality, original, innovative, challenging, widely available and distinctive.

Crucially, the report identifies that public service broadcasting exists to go beyond what can be provided in the market. Instead seeking to serve “the ‘citizen’ or ‘public’ interest.” The report quotes the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, who stated that

“Citizen interests go beyond our choices as private consumers, to provide broader social benefits to democracy, culture, identity, learning, participation and engagement. Citizen interests tend to have a longer-term focus than consumer interests which are influenced by ongoing market trends.”

Going beyond market provision has long been a hallmark of public service broadcasting, with its focus on the universality of service provision, and the ability to provide programming that might only be of interest to (comparatively) small audiences. What the report questions, however, is the ability of the BBC, and other public service media organisations, to capture the interests of those smaller audiences, in a world where their attention is being diverted to other international services and media providers, such as YouTube.

The report has echoes of concerns that have resonated in discussions about public service broadcasting for many years now. The decline in support for children’s programming; the underrepresentation of people of colour or with non-UK cultural heritages; and the aging population who remain loyal viewers of broadcast television services, despite the rise in alternative platforms.

If the audience that stays loyal to the public service broadcasters is getting older, and is defiend by increasingly conservative viewing habits then change is more difficult to achieve. Most broadcasters can’t (nor should they) simply abandon their legacy audience. This creates difficulties, the report suggests, for the future innovation and adaptation capability of the existing public service broadcasters, and highlights a lack of capacity to develop new models of broadcasting and content provision.

I’m not convinced, however, that the reforms and proposals made in this report are anywhere near radical enough to meet future needs, and that there has to be a much more fundamental and comprehensive reform of public service media based on a deeper understanding of civic engagement principles, social participation and media democracy. To some extent this report is simply looking for ways to fill the gaps in existing public service broadcasting provision, and offers little in the way of bold thinking about comprehensive reform.

Personally, I would like to see the debate about the development of public service broadcasting reform discussed in the following ways:

Radical Decentralisation: in the UK too much of the provision of public service broadcasting is defined and controlled centrally. The BBC is an enormous machine for processing its own concerns, and as such faces very few internal challenges to its hegemony over the model of public service that it practices.

The BBC wlll often float the spectre of unbridled commercial markets to scare politicians and policy makers into accepting its present structure, when elected representtive could be making core and fundamental changes that would lead to a more dynamic and decentralised publc service model.

For example, technology has changed the way that we collect information about our lives and our activities. The need to have a large, centralised processing house to do the policy and management work is long gone. Organisations of the future will be decentralised and will collate, aggregate and share data about their activities, independently of any centralised management authority or power-broker.

Why, then, is there a need to maintain a centralised and systemic form of BBC management and organisation? Why not radically federate the BBC structure so that decisions, funding and service provision are empowered and accountable locally?

The argument that is usually put against this idea, though, is that we will lose the economies of scale that we supposedly benefit from when programmes are commissioned from a central pool of expertise and talent. This negates the fact that too often we are missing out on economies of innovation that would otherwise allow for new actors to enter the broadcast ecology, for new processes and techniques to be tested and experimented with, and the ongoing concerns of people based on their local needs given prioirty.

Mutuality: the licence fee is an antiquated concept. It is a tax in all but name. So, rather that seeking to add levies and chasing additional market capital, as the report suggests, this investegation should have explored how there is a strong and growing interest in alternative, collaborative and social forms of funding – as Nesta have been discussing in its report on Public Value Financing.

In order to decentralise the structure of the BBC, why not turn it into a mutual organisation or cooperative, so that each licence fee payer has a new and different relationship with the principles and values that public service broadcasting represents at different levels?

The question that always needs to be asked, morover, is what do we get for supporting the BBC? What input do we have? What ability do we have to shape its values? What say do we have in how the BBC and other public service broadcasters operate? Why are we paying a tax to support and fund this and other organisations without any direct say in the way they operate?

Again, technology has changed, and the ability of large organisations to involve people in their operations has also changed as well. We are on the cusp of an era of mass participative democracy enabled by digital technology, so lets adapt the BBC and other public service broadcasters, making them services that are mutually co-owned as a cooperative for public benefit.

Citizen Participation: a radical decentralisation and shift to mutuality would need support and provision for the involvement of members of the cooperative that is formed. Enabling supporters and subscribers to have their say. But rather than spending time imitating the commercial models of mass marketing engagement and public relations management, public services broadcasters should be required to commit to co-development models of citizen engagement, empowerment and participation.

In the Post-Brexit world, many are expecting a radical transformation of the process of political and public engagement, whether through direct community participation or by enhanced digital service engagement. The public service broadcasting providers should not be exempt from this process.

The BBC, for example, will have to learn how to be a participative organisation, and not simply a service provider for vague and nebulous audiences. Public service broadcasters should, therefore, be required to serve the needs of the public on many more levels – including education, wellbeing and civic engagement.

It is no longer sufficient to simply put content out into the world and claim that it is somehow, and somewhat mysteriously, doing the audience good. There has to be a deeper change of thinking that embraces collaboration, co-development and participation in the management and commissioning of the broadcast services that are commissioned. This does not mean operating endless committees, but instead it means operating in a distributed way, in which that which can be done at the lowest level, should be done at the lowest level, only moving upwards by agreement and consensus in a process of aggregated and accountalbe decision making.

Forget the Quality – Think About the Values: the obsession that haunts the policy development agenda of public service media in the UK, however, is the beleif that public service broadcasters should be expected to compete on the world stage, both in terms of creativity and quality of the content. The problem with the global quality model, however, is that it is stifling innovation and creativity at the local and community end of the production scale.

Prestige programmes tend to attract people who seek prestige and social status for themselves, by virtue of their association with so-called quality programming. This has the effect, however, of leaving the ecosystem of programming and independent thinking in a sterile and shallow condition. There is a braindrain from the so-called perepharies to the centre. However, we can’t have sustainable communities and a sustainable media service if the industrial process of development and production sucks-out all other forms of social and cultural expression, and leaves local media in a peralous state.

An Alternative Approach: I would like to see, therefore, a public service broadcasting culture that is obsessive about the social and cultural values of the communities that they serve, and which has the freedom to serve them in the way that those communities support and engage with. To do this we have to adopt a values-led process and move away from the obsession of letting the market provide or dictate the forms of our social engagement.

There are millions of stories and programmes that people would like to share, if they have the chance to do so in a way that build on their sense of identity and belonging. So, rather than supporting a ‘skills’ culture, public service broadcasting should be supporting an accountable voices culture. A values culture. Simply mimicing the delivery patterns of industrial organisations and global commercial media opperators rips the heart out of public service broadcasting, because it too often takes people away from a close proximity to the lives of their fellow citizens, and their responsibilities to build a strong social bonds using media and broadcasting programming.

Fundamentally, we need to examine what we mean by the word ‘service.’ For too long public service broadcasting has focussed on a narrow and technical (or market) provision of the idea of service. But service as a conept is not just limited to the definition of provision. For example, do we measure the social mobility, and hence vitality, of our communities simply by counting the number of busses that are on our roads at any one time?

As Lord Beveridge remarked in his report on the importance of voluntary civic society in 1948,

“The spirit of service is a wind that bloeth where it listeth. But if it is a true spirit it impies readiness to learn how to serve as well as desire to serve” (Beverage 1948, p.151).

Service, therefore, is a statement of our values and our intent. Service is something that we give to others and society generally, for which we recognise that there is mutual benefit, understanding and advancement to be gained. Let’s reform public service broadcasting so it puts ta renewed idea of service back at the centre of the public’s expectation of why it is being offered, and who is willing to undertake it (and pay for it). Otherwise, leaving things to the market, as we have done for far too long, will only result in a narrowing of provision, a limiting of expectations, and a greater increase in inequality.

This report indicates that none of these things are being considered or discussed by our policy makers, and as such it is a wasted opportunity to get to grips with the fundamental problems that we will face in the future.

[Updated and revised on Tuesday 19th November 2019].

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