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Bringing oxygen into the magic circle

Richard Collins
13 June 2001

Andrew Graham and David Elstein are both right – and both wrong. Their exchange on the future of public service broadcasting has the character of an Irish Elk act – lots of noisy bashing together of the over-developed antlers that made the species extinct. To construct the future of public service broadcasting, whether for good or ill, in terms of the future of Channels 1 to 5 limits the issue too much and leaves important questions unasked. Irish Elks’ future doubtless mattered to the elks themselves but probably not to the less generously antlered species that replaced them.

How strange, in articles published in the web journal, openDemocracy, to find no treatment worth mentioning of the web in either writer’s argument! True, Graham mentions the internet – but only to assert it changes nothing. But it does. Like broadcasting before it (think of the difference in cost of distributing audio-visual works to final consumers via television compared to the cinema), the internet/web has dramatically reduced the costs of distributing information and therefore entry barriers to markets for final consumption of information.

Antler bashing

Are the resources devoted to public service broadcasting in the UK (plausibly estimated by David Elstein as £3.5bn annually) best devoted to Channels 1 to 5 (including, let’s assume, Radio 1-5 and the rag-tag and bobtail of public sector intervention in local radio and radio regulation)? Or should at least some of these resources be used in mining the enormous stock of information works kept, effectively inaccessibly, in museums, libraries, galleries and archives? How to digitise and distribute, broadcast if you like, the pool of public information and knowledge resources over the web is the public policy question that the sound of big antler bashing is drowning out.

The British Film Institute’s experience of web publishing is one concrete example of the power of the web to make accessible the enormous pool of intellectual capacity, know-how and information resources locked up in public sector bodies. Before we developed our website, the BFI National Library distributed less than 1,000 copies a year of its bibliographies and study guides. Via the web, we are achieving circa36,000 downloads of PDF document files a year. This is, surely, broadcasting in the service of the public – except in the narrow and traditional Elkist terms which limit public service broadcasting to television Channels 1 to 5.

Out of the laager

Of course, the BFI’s experience is but one of a host of other instances that could be cited. All of us public information bodies in the UK – whether SCRAN, the Tate Gallery, or the universities (pick your own url), or an international collaborative site like www.fathom.com – could do so much more to digitise, acquire rights and make our holdings and expertise more widely accessible. So why confine the policy debate about broadcasting in the public service to the magic circle within the traditionally defined laager of public service broadcasting?

But this is not to say that debate among the Elks has no claim on our attention. It does. Graham and Elstein are asking real and important questions – whatever the importance of the internet, radio and television will remain central elements in the political lives and pleasurable pursuits of UK viewers and listeners as far ahead as we can see.

Graham is right – we do need public provision. Elstein is right – the public provision we have leaves a lot to be desired. To make the case for public service broadcasting is not to make a case for our current public service broadcasters. How do we improve the governance and practice of our established institutions so they more nearly approximate to the shining ideal of Graham’s Platonic vision, rather than to Elstein’s (convincing) dystopian empirical charges? Surely, if these bodies are public, the public should have a considerably greater say in their governance that it (we) now has (have)?

Extending the debate

So what should we debate? Let me assert an agenda. First, the guardians of these Platonic monuments should be elected and accountable: Graham is right, the market is a poor instrument for expressing consumer and citizen interests and preferences in this domain – in spite of the changes to which Elstein testifies. But it’s hard to believe that the market is an inferior vehicle for the expression of the popular will than the arcane processes that establish our regulatory and broadcasting guardians in their positions.

Second, the BBC should be broken up or federalised. Graham refers to the economies of scale in the broadcasting (and more broadly defined information) sector. He didn’t mention the dis-economies of scale that beset large institutions and which are abundantly evident in the BBC.

Third, there should be stronger and more formalised representation of consumer interests. Broadcasting is a medium where price and political signalling systems provide viewers and listeners with, at best, indirect means of expressing their preferences. Let’s follow the line consistently advocated by consumer bodies and have a strong broadcasting consumer council.

Antler-bashing is a great spectator sport (and given how much of it goes on, one has to presume the elks enjoy it too). But it leaves unposed, let alone unanswered, important questions of proportionality: how important are radio and television in the era of the web? Also, institutional reform: how to change the public service broadcasters who will and should be with us for the foreseeable future.

Recognising the web as an effective broadcasting medium, broadening the definition of public service broadcaster to included galleries, university archives, and so on, and reform of the governance of the established public broadcasters would do much to make us ask Steinbeck’s question less often. Steinbeck, you will remember, said that when he heard people claiming to serve the public, he asked himself just who it was who was getting screwed.

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