What did the Public Service Broadcasting Forum achieve?

The Public Service Broadcasting Forum, timed to coincide with the BBC's strategy review, is now closed. Here, the editor looks back on how the forum helped shape the media landscape. He argues that it is now time for a holistic approach to media reform – welcoming in our new debate, Power and the Media
Daniel-Joseph MacArthur-Seal
24 May 2011

The Public Service Broadcasting Forum, timed to coincide with the BBC's strategy review, is now closed. Here, the editor looks back on how the forum helped shape the media landscape. He argues that it is now time for a holistic approach to media reform – welcoming in our new debate, Power and the Media.

Like the Parliament it shadows, the media’s aura of sacred independence can obscure a closed shop, a system determined to vigorously defend its collective power from any external threat. The “Parliamentary Sovereignty” MPs invoke to preserve their system of privilege from challenge by anyone but fellow beneficiaries is matched by the media’s beloved ‘freedom of the press’ – a phrase that invokes civic high-mindedness to fend off all but the gentlest forms of self-regulation. 

In both cases it’s clear that outside voices need to be heard, and not just through the approved measures of approval at the ballot box or the newsagent’s cashtill, both of whose returns have been diminishing as the media and parliament’s legitimacy crises deepen. openDemocracy stands outside both tightly-drawn wagon circles, and it and the rest of the internet media seems a natural vantage point from which to rain down arrows on the cowboys within. I was among those responsible for our first volley, the Public Service Broadcasting Forum.

Initiated by Frank Field MP, the forum was opened on 29 March 2010 in order to ‘ debate the importance of public service broadcasting to the life and well-being of the nation ’. It ’s timing mirrored the BBC ’s strategy review, plans for which were presented by the executive to the Trust, and opened for public consultation from 2 March to 25 May. The responses of various organisations are available here. A summary of public responses was published here.

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After the consultation’s close, the BBC Trust issued its preliminary response in July 2010, though Trust chairman Michael Lyons had in effect already endorsed the executive’s strategy on its launch, before releasing its final revised strategy document in December of last year.

By then the two most significant cuts proposed by the executive – of the digital radio stations the Asian Network and 6 Music – had been dropped. The suspicion that these were decoy proposals intended to rally public support for the BBC, as outlined in an early article by Richard Collins, seems plausible. Even though both stations had small audiences (less than a one percent share), their proposed closure dominated public responses to the consultation survey, being the most referenced topic in answer to a large number of the questions posed, according to the Trust ’s summarised results

This and other procedural complexities undermined the review process from the start. Furthermore, changes imposed on the BBC in negotiations with government (as sketched in one of several articles by David Elstein, the Forum ’s chair) have killed any hope that this was to be a democratic, public-led reorientation of the BBC ’s strategic priorities. The politicians and media executives settled matters on their own terms. 

And so the Trust’s “final” answer to the ten-month strategy review has hardly settled the question of public service broadcasting provision and the need for an open forum for the principled discussion of PSB is as pressing as ever, which makes the launch of Power and the Media welcome. First off, Power and the Media is a better name under which to carry on some of what the Public Service Broadcasting Forum, abbreviated by necessity to the PSBF, started. The issue of power is essential. At its best, the media can provide the public with a much-needed power of their own, to alter and resist in a democratic way. At its worst, the media can pollute our public space, maintaining an atmosphere that is only healthy for their fellow power-holders.

Naturally, then, the issue of power was always our concern (I was interested to learn lately that Power and Democracy was the intended name of openDemocracy), and the PSBF’s purview extended further than the PSB that its name suggested. The only effective way to conceive the media and proposals for its reform is as a holistic ecosystem, not allowing divisions between radio, television, print, public and private sectors to confuse any coherent vision for the whole.

This was and is important, since the UK debate on media reform seems to be deadlocked by the titanic struggle between the BBC and Sky/News Corps. The context into which the Power and Media section launches is that of a Cold War, in which all contributions to debate are assigned to one camp or the other. Constructive critiques are stifled by deep suspicions that their authors are proxy forces or fifth columnists for the rival camp. Though our intention was to break out from this field of fire, this was felt acutely in the course of our discussion of the Public Service Media.

Our criticisms of the BBC, for example, drew fire in the form of threats to end donations to openDemocracy and the accusation that I was an aspiring Daily Mail journalist. Meanwhile calls for greater regulation of private news companies were dismissed as irrelevant so long as the BBC maintained its large market share. These countervailing forces have produced an equilibrium upholding the status quo; both behemoths lean upon each other in order to maintain their respective privileged positions, while other players are happy to conduct equally suspect practices under the radar of public scrutiny. The opposition of several major news companies to BSkyB’s acquisition by News Corp without acknowledging their own failings suggests the major powers are happy with the way things stand. 

Despite these challenges, I think the PSBF covered significant ground and had some limited effect. Bringing in voices from the BBC, “rival” commercial media organisations, parliament, online publishers and academia, the June conference held with the City University Department of Journalism was a great success (videos of the conferences three sessions are available herehere and here, and a summary of the preceding written discussion here). Though the immediate reaction of the press was a depressing confirmation of many of the defects we had highlighted - coverage almost entirely ignored the challenging ideas, reforms and proposals that had been put forward, in favour of the more sensational,  newsworthy ’ aspects of the event - some positive impact is identifiable. The House of Lords Communications Committee is now examining the governance of the BBC, a major focus of the Forum, and taking evidence from several of its participants.

There is still much work to be done. Our loudest call was for a comprehensive commission into the media as a whole, to which the Lords inquiry is the whisper of an answer heard on the other side of the great attenuation walls that guard the British establishment. It only promises to continue the piecemeal reform of the media that has proved so ineffective in managing or even understanding the converging mediascape that is resulting from technological change.

Aside from this fundamental challenge, other changes since the Summer of 2010 make a renewed discussion more urgent. Cuts to public spending have had their result in a licence fee freeze and the incorporation of the S 4 C and the World Service into the BBC as a way of settling the issue with little strategic direction; News Corps continues negotiations to purchase BSkyB, which while focusing attention on the danger of concentrated media power threatens to distract from the issues of strategic, holistic reform; copyright laws have been reviewed on account of changing media demands; and battles to divulge super-injunctions rage on. There is much to be discussed.

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