Public broadcasting: imperfect but essential

Jean Seaton
25 June 2001

In the light of new technologies – multi-channel, broadband and digital convergence – the future of public service broadcasting is now a crucial global concern. What kind of broadcasting policies we have, and whether we define a public service remit as a central plank of media policy, will determine the health of our democratic processes – ultimately what kind of society we live in. The case of Britain can be instructive for both for its successes and its potential failures. The BBC is the world’s oldest public service institutions, as well as one of its most revered. The BBC model has had a worldwide influence.

Equally, with the introduction of ITV in 1955, Britain was one of the first countries to introduce commercial competition, and continues to have a huge domestic and export market for its media products. Britain is a mature broadcasting market, but some of its most important traditions – from a commitment to independent rigorous news reporting, to a diversity of output, to the basic principles of public service as a bulwark to democracy - are under threat. What is happening in Britain may prove influential for the future of PSBs globally.

Broadcasting in Britain has been a useful success. The right to broadcast – and to profit from it – has been matched by the duty to do so ambitiously in the interests of the public. Broadcasting has been useful because it has been creative, authoritative and original. It has expressed our feelings, corrected our insularity and articulated views of the world that have surprised and delighted us. It has told us things that we need to know. It has provided the most consistent and principled critique of the working of the law in Britain. There are people who are free because of broadcasting’s intelligent attention to research; and there are people behind bars, as they ought to be, because of it. At its best it tests politicians with a determined and informed scrutiny.

None of this has been accidental. Broadcasters have been forced to compete to make better programmes, rather than higher profits. Public service broadcasting has been the foundation of excellence across the history of broadcasting, but also across the whole range of companies. What is so odd about the pro-market case made by David Elstein in his article for the first issue of openDemocracy, is that somebody who has contributed so valuably to the power of broadcasting as a producer of high quality current affairs, should want to make such perverse arguments about it. Clearly he is fascinated by competition and the operation of the market. Both of these are crucial in a healthy and diverse media environment. But they are by no means all: we need to get the best outcomes, socially, politically, even commercially.

Two of Elstein’s arguments are simply wrong. First, Public Service Broadcasting did not develop in Britain because of spectrum scarcity, as he suggests. There was spectrum scarcity everywhere, but most countries did not produce a public service system as a solution to it – although most democracies were anxious to control the disruptive political power of the new medium if it fell into the hands of any one party, just as dictatorships were keen to exploit that power. Public service broadcasting was a social and a political invention, and one that has been repeatedly sustained by imaginative political will. Everything valuable about it had to be struggled for and re-fought at every stage, and spectrum scarcity was a favourable background condition – but no more.

Secondly, he suggests that public service channels like the BBC and Channel 4 make dreadful programmes just like the commercial ones. This is absolutely correct, but akin to looking through a telescope from the wrong end (though for somewhat less heroic purposes than Nelson). The existence of public service channels and of public service commitments for commercial channels pulls the whole system in the direction of better, sharper programmes.

We do get trite, boring enervating pap. But as Elstein must know, the argument for PSB is about the whole mix of programmes. One triumph of public service broadcasting in Britain has been the way commercial channels have been stimulated to produce important popular programmes, which in turn makes the publicly funded channels try harder and better. Michael Grade has been on both sides – commercial and state funded – and is no slouch on the competitive commercial front. As he once put it, the BBC and public service obligations “make us all honest”.

The bad news

I want to refute Elstein’s argument, by looking at just one strand of broadcasting: news. When the BBC monopoly ended, Independent Television News was set up as a separate company within the commercial ITV network in order to preserve the impartiality of news within the commercial system. ITN became an example of the wild success of a public service remit for commercial broadcasting. Innovations in television news exposed the BBC’s flaccid offering, and competition raised the former monopoly’s game. While ITN was always a lean and mean news operation, it swiftly became a great one.

This has now been undermined. With the auctioning of the British commercial franchises in the early nineties, the entire system has been re-regulated away from the inclusion of public service objectives. The new system forces companies to value profit exclusively over reach and content. Commercial news broadcasting quality is in freefall. BBC news looks set to follow this sad trivialising path. This is clear evidence of what Andrew Graham, in his contribution to the openDemocracy media debate, calls market failure, the failure to deliver what the public needs and wants.

There are three elements to news provision. First, there is breaking news. These are the attention grabbing top stories that are often visually dramatic – Concorde in flames, hostage situations unfolding in real time - that attract audiences by virtue of their drama. This form of news relies primarily on speed and good international networks. CNN, for example, with their numerous foreign bureaus and twenty-four hour format, have pioneered successful ‘breaking’ news provision.

Second, there is what we might call ‘understanding’ or explanatory news. I am thinking here of longer format news programming such as the BBC’s Newsnight, or the Channel 4 early evening news, which provide some context to understand headlines and breaking stories.

The third type of news might be called deep background. This is the form of news that tracks issues to the root. Examples are rare – that’s part of the problem. But take the Birmingham Six case in Britain. Six Irishmen were framed by the police and imprisoned in 1975 for a terrorist bombing they did not commit. Over their sixteen-year struggle for justice ITV’s World In Action tracked the story; their reporting contributed to the public awareness, which was one factor in their eventual release. This form of reporting is often unglamorous and always expensive, but it can decisively shift the agenda. In a world of globalised corporate power, full scale detailed investigation is essential to provide the public with the truth about what is going on. This is a complex, time-consuming form of reporting, which cannot deliver a high rate of financial return in respect of specific programming.

The point is that a channel has to be taken as a whole. This kind of in-depth investigation is only one part of a channel’s identity. But if channel owners are compelled to maximise profit year on year, as the market dictates, the costs of this kind of programming are bound to be cut. Will such cuts stop people from watching a particular channel? Obviously not. On paper this kind of cutting looks good for managers and shareholders, but is it bad for the knowledge and understanding that are vital for democracy?

This is not an argument about “dumbing down” – a crude and un-illuminating category. Indeed, the history of ITN shows that we can distinguish between engaging a diverse audience in issues by presenting those issues in an inviting and personally relevant way, and the cynical exploitation of sensation. Important news does not require a posh accent and a dinner jacket. But today, mainstream broadcast news is wilting under the pressure of the market and is losing intelligence, style, authority and audience.

Regulation and de-regulation

If we look to America where the process has gone much further, the prospects are chilling. There, the television network news services, once the world’s greatest news machines, have been killed off through ‘de-regulation’. As a result Americans consume less news from any screen (including their computers) than they did twenty years ago, and even more disturbingly, news values have narrowed. Breaking news dominates everywhere. Much American news now involves chasing the local fire engine, followed by ‘bombs around the world’. Isn’t this the inevitable outcome of the system Elstein advocates?

In the digital era now fast approaching, public service provision and media regulation needs their advocates to be determined and honest. Have there been weaknesses in British public service provision? Yes. Has it at times been paternalist, elitist, bloated? Of course it has. Are we prepared to let expensive but, in cultural terms, invaluable, investigative news reporting disappear from our schedules entirely? An emphatic no.

Yes, the BBC gets a lot of money from the British public through the licence fee, and yes we should be worried how they spend it. But we must argue, as many American commentators have, that rampant market systems such as that in the USA are undesirable and anti-democratic. If it costs Britain the equivalent of £3 billion a year to secure the BBC and Channel 4, then with all their faults it is money well spent. The costs of going down the American road will be very much greater.

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