Reflecting on a media in crisis

Various parts of the media are threatened by scandals of their own making, as well as coercive political challenges. This is the moment to re-think what media is for.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
16 September 2015
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Flickr/ Neil Howard.Some rights reserved.

Various parts of the media are threatened by scandals of their own making. Then there are coercive political challenges. This is the moment to re-think what media are for and how a public service acts for the public good.

The media feed on a sense of crisis, but not when it happens in media. Public service broadcasting faces charter renewal by a government determined on change. Media generally are mired in scandals that will not fade. The giants of British media contend with each other for the commanding position while both face the scrutiny of the state and society in a sceptical mood. This is a pivotal moment.

Of course a crisis is not a tragedy. The outcomes are not yet determined. The crises may be resolved. Continuity is the norm of civil society. The resolution of conflict is a liberal aim. Compromise is presented as the desired aim of social exchange. In other words, the precedents suggest that the sense of crisis will pass with only marginal and local change. Some resignations, some restructuring, some re-naming may occur, but the new is likely to resemble the old, given time.

A truly radical resolution would demand an examination of principle as well as practice. A pivotal moment need not be a cause for alarm. It can be an opportunity for a positive revaluation. It can be a chance which may not come again in a generation.

A questioning of existing structures and purposes is in one sense timely. Technology is changing the nature of media. There was a time when the only serious, literate radio had one provider. That monopoly has been broken by digital radio, by podcasts, and by community stations [which can be accessed generally on the internet]. These outlets are gaining audiences attracted both to the quality of the programming and to the dedication of the broadcasters for whom their work is not a career opportunity but a personal commitment.

Once we only had television on a very few channels. Now we have, apart from all the satellite and cable providers, various internet outlets. Mainstream providers have found it necessary to make the accommodation with the democratic energies emerging on the scene. These energies cannot be ignored. It is a scene resembling the Sixties/Seventies alternative culture articulated by community newspapers. I began on one, Bath Plain Dealer. In my very first article, I described an established public service provider as ‘a tortoise trying to escape its shell’. [I was reviewing The Reith Diaries.]

The important thing about this alternative culture was that it was positive and creative in spirit. It was not so much a protest against as a testament for. I caught its last wave before a less generous spirit stalked the land. However, all was not lost. Those Underground and community papers were a training ground for a number of emerging talents who since then have risen. True, there was a lot of ephemera and vulgarity that even at the time I thought sub-standard. But a time of experiment is a moment to be alive. We may be witnessing such an embryonic moment again, although conformity seeks to ignore what it cannot comprehend. There was a partial advance way back. This time round who knows?

An advance will present itself significantly only after some root thinking about the causes of the current crisis. Society has lost faith in its media. A compromise deal will serve only to deflect and defer. It cannot resolve and reconcile fundamental problems.There is no denying there are some worthwhile, even invaluable, things on air. But the incidental benefits of broadcasting have to be set against the context of our media culture. There is so much – too much - trivia. There is much that insults the intellect and sensibilities of a mature general audience. There is so much that seeks significance while gaining the status of moving wallpaper accorded in the domestic context of its reception.

There is a media myth that popular programmes ‘entertain the whole nation’. The viewing figures suggest otherwise. Broadcasting is a presence in most people’s lives, but the possibility must be considered that it touches the general life of society far less than we commonly suppose. Yet, it seems evident that the great media corporations, commercial and public service, seek as their end the leading role in society. There is no warrant for this. It is incompatible with the nature of a plural culture in a liberal democracy. But phrases like ‘a great liberal institution’ are employed to an unacceptable and therefore unstated end. The use of ‘liberal’ is intentionally ambiguous. The use of ‘institution’ raises questions no-one asks.

Hubris and hyperbole detract from the gravity ‘a great liberal institution’ seeks. Claims are made that do not receive the challenges, even on factual grounds, that should be the response of serious commentary. So much goes unchallenged [except at an emotional, uninformed and reactionary level] because broadcasting is not nearly as accountable as it ought to be. It is accountable to the elite of which it is part. A network of acquaintance and common interest ensures that things understood are understood and that other things are left unsaid.

That is why the current crisis is likely to pass. Precedent suggests that no part of our media can make a direct challenge to the state and win. Precedent also suggests governance is subject to the forces of self-interest a powerful media corporation can muster in its defence.

The new factor is the so far untested power of new media technologies and their culture of hip, young voices who may take some persuading. Of course, it was thought that the Sixties’ pirate stations would take some persuading, but the pirates duly signed up to lucrative deals. To a degree the process of absorption is necessary if society is to advance, although bourgeois society can absorb almost anything and thereby neutralise challenges. The challenge it cannot absorb it seeks to eradicate. It will be no easy task transforming corporate media culture into a more responsive and creative series of networks. It will happen only when the dichotomy between public service and commercial populism is resolved. That may happen now that the momentum for change is gathering, especially as the opportunity is timely in a moment of crisis. This is the now we may not see again for a long time.

Self-interest will remain an obstacle. The implied end of corporate media is to embrace the totality of social experience, to be an indispensable factor in every citizen’s life. A finger in every pie except the one marked ‘humble’. This arrogation is a disturbance in a democratic polity so precariously balanced. But the fact remains that society is governed formally by the state. Society’s needs and values are determined by a variety of factors, of which broadcasting is but one among many. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous conceit.

We are a culturally advanced society that does so much so well. Many organisations, official and informal, are world class. Broadcasting can act as a conduit of these achievements so that the potential audience multiplies a hundredfold and more. But broadcasting takes its place in a changing social context. Information and conversation now come from so many sources. A responsive and responsible common culture is replacing the old imperial and corporate culture that sought to direct social development.

The current structures of broadcasting are not time-honoured institutions, nor are they the only valid way of doing things. Broadcasting could be ordered differently, in another place with other people with different trajectories. The anecdotal evidence I have gathered over some years is of a surprisingly sharp and unyielding public anger against those elements of the media that seek not to contribute to society but to control it. A true public service listens and responds to the general mood for the public good. Patronising and manipulative programming, for commercial or political advantage, is the greater scandal. Public service is for the greater good.

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