Broadcasting Britishness

Tom Griffin
19 June 2008
Tom Griffin (London, The Green Ribbon): The role of the BBC and other public service broadcasters in promoting national identity has been much discussed in recent weeks, with reports on the issue coming from the BBC Trust and the IPPR.

In a keynote speech to the Broadcasting Britishness? conference in Oxford on Tuesday, distinguished historian Linda Colley suggested that this emphasis on the media may be letting politicians off the hook:

"Whatever role you determine the national broadcast media can and should play in fostering national and social cohesion, I suspect that at base these are political issues that require political solutions," she argued.

It's very easy for the Government to lead culture bodies which require Government funding. It's very much harder for a British government to take its own inititiatives to devise say a new written constitution that might give people in these islands a much stronger sense of common citizenship, or to legislate say a common curriculum in British history and citizenship in all four parts of the UK.

Arguably such expedients are necessary, but it is only the politicians who are going to be able to do this.

The dominant theme of the conference was the relationship between ethnic minorities and the media. James Thickett of Ofcom presented research which showed that ethnic minorities are significantly less likely to watch the main public service broadcasters.

BBC director Samir Shah presented an optimistic picture of a Britain that had become a 'functioning multi-racial society' but was withering about inauthentic representations such as Eastenders' Indian family, the Ferreiras, in which one son had a Muslim name, another had a Hindu name, and they all had a Catholic surname.

There was much discussion of the rise of 'diasporic media' such as dedicated satellite channels, widely seen as having displaced much of the role of specific Black and Asian programmes on 'mainstream' channels.

There was also some discussion of the differing needs of the 'nations and regions' of the UK, with Ofcom's research showing that 'people, especially in the devolved nations, have very different views of how they see Britishness being delivered in broadcast media.'

This may illustrate another point made in Linda Colley's opening speech:

Official concern and initiatives to do with Britishness and social cohesion have of course magnified conspicously since 9/11 and 7/7 but it is important, it is vital when discussing identity, diversity and the media, to remember that the reasons why Britishness has come to seem more problematic are in fact many and various.

This is emphatically not just an issue to do with minorities. Nor is it just an issue because of events in the very recent past.

Colley stressed that Britishness has always co-existed with multiple identities. There are signs that the BBC is beginning to grips with the way those identities have evolved.

One recent example, a news story spotted by Gareth Young, perhaps illustrates the thesis that political problems require political solutions.

England's workers are to be given a new right to request time off for training relevant to their job.

Ministers expect an extra 300,000 people a year to receive extra training as a result of the new law which could be in place by 2010.

The government hopes the new right will bring about a culture change.

England's Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said the new right would work in the same way as the existing right to request flexible working.

It may be high-time that the BBC embraces a language that accurately reflects post-devolution realities, but in doing so it may only illuminate the issues that politicians have so far failed to address.






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