From 'special interest' to public interest: minority programming and the BBC’s democratic mandate

One of the BBC's most lauded strengths is its ability to tailor programming for its audiences' special interests. The future DG should attempt to harness the ethos of this diverse and high quality output with a view to rebuilding the institution's democratic vision. 

Jamie Mackay
15 June 2012

By any criteria the BBC produces TV and Radio of great integrity for special audiences, that may even be unequalled in the English speaking media. The diversity and depth of its Storyville documentaries, the gonzo adventures of Louis Theroux and the stylized political histories of Adam Curtis all stand out as groundbreaking examples in their respective genres. For technophiles there is Click and for science geeks, Horizon. Radio 3 caters for an eclectic range of music lovers while the middle-England Anglicanism of Songs of Praise is balanced out - with a respect surpassing mere ‘tolerance’ - by the multi-faith Thought for the Day.

But there are several glaring problems. It doesn’t require an extensive quantitative study to ascertain that the majority of the team members working on these programs come from similar class and wealth backgrounds, while ethnic and gender diversity among the key anchormen is even less impressive. Just where is the black Paul Mason? The female Brian Cox? While some may scorn this demographic approach – ‘the current elite are producing good content so leave them alone!’  – it is surely imperative that a public service broadcaster not only appeals to but is created by a representative balance of the population. Between the strength of the above programming and the crisis of parity then, there emerges an important task: for the BBC to make its strengths stronger, to democratise access and extend the public value of its specialised content.

Such a commitment to ‘revitalising’ does not necessarily entail a shortsighted capitulation to fashion – or valorising the Corporation purely for its pastness as some sacred cow of flailing Britishness. Nor does it require positive discrimination. There are more pragmatic reasons and means of achieving these aims. Historical reputation, public trust (misplaced or otherwise), the bind of the license fee and independence from advertising give the BBC semi-autonomous status that remains productive despite the outgoing Director General Mark Thompson’s view that the institution should support the broader media market. Indeed, the number of high-profile figures who claim that their content could not have been produced in any other media institution in the current political climate is telling of the extent to which commissioning and programming, at least, are held together by something more than sentimental nostalgia.

Whatever Thompson may have seen as his mission, the BBC, from its professed core values to its current funding model, remains, in my view, a public institution that is inherently opposed to market fundamentalism. And despite the flagrant contentions of Boris Johnson, this is not a dynamic that can be reduced to the vagueries of mainstream political discourse. For quietly, but with great arsenal, the BBC fights out a persistent, low-level civil war: the ideological vacuum of Question Time, with its engrained bias of secular Anglicanism, spars continuously, if implicitly, with the ‘open’ and more elusive platform of its documentary work. Too often is the BBC’s identity defined purely by its ‘major’ output, but these fringe programs are at the heart of its heterogeneous political identity.

A useful illustration of this is the significant disparity in coverage of the NHS reforms between the newsroom and the world of radio and Internet podcasts. The current battlecry of the left, supported by chilling evidence, is that the BBC was spectacularly inept and perhaps conspiratorial in its failure to provide an adequate platform for the widespread opposition to the government’s proposed measures. Conspiracy or not, the lofty diversions that have made up the response not only demonstrate how far the BBC’s apparent core has deviated from its commitment to public service, but so too the institution’s petrified, ransom-like subservience to the whims of state and capital.

But while the newsroom parroted non-committal press releases like rabbits in headlights, several smaller audience programs, including the sociology program ‘Thinking Allowed’ and the arts forum ‘Night Waves’, were picking up on a viral youtube video created by a bin man from Leicestershire: a strikingly well-informed critique laced with an uncontrived chorus directed at Andrew Lansley: “The NHS is not for sale you grey haired manky codger”. Why could this not have been shared by the BBC’s high profile programmes? Yes, the language is ‘coarse’ but to deign this unsuitable is not merely a question national prudishness, a defense of ‘aesthetic decency’: it is a form of political censorship.

Hardly neutrality. For who decides whether or where this gets coverage? Certainly not the license fee payers. If the BBC stands for the potential to share knowledge outside of the market, outside the domain of individual and corporate interest, it has a duty to channel, and seriously channel, voices such as this, which chime so closely with the values of the Charter. In this particular case, the discussion of the Andrew Lansley video on Newsnight (with an appropriate panel) would not only have resulted in a more balanced argument but have gone some way towards attempting to solve the problem of parity. 

If indeed this vision is tenable, what is required is a re-thinking of ‘public interest’ in a period of competition and rapidly evolving online resources. And my suggestion is different to that of Mark Thompson. If the BBC is to be representative and democratic in present conditions, far from contributing to a wider media climate of commercialization its core proposition should be to provide a service that is not available via “private” broadcasting. Rather than gambling £23 million on The Voice - in a flimsy concession to a pace set by the corporate sponsored X-Factor - the task should be to look at what groups are not being represented, what narratives are not being told and shared on Channel 4, ITV, Sky etc. As in the spasmodic sharing of the Andrew-Lansley rap, specialist BBC programming is already far ahead in achieving this than most other major media outlets, but such attentiveness, daring and outspokenness needs to be encouraged within high-audience output.   

Of course, the problem of enforced universality remains tricky to unravel, and while this proposal has democratic potential, the BBC would need, counter-intuitively, to maintain a staunch confidence at the possibility of a short term drop in ratings by adopting such a policy. Here, the license fee must be defended as a regulatory force: as ensuring that the voices being left out of the corporate media battleground are given a platform. But in order for this argument to stand true there is a corresponding need for a revision of how to embrace citizen journalism and blogging; where the space could emerge for a deliberative model of public service. Only in these terms can the accusation of the BBC as ‘state-funded propaganda’ be mutated and triumphed into the voice of a public who might one day choose to pay the license fee. The day when the BBC can air opinions that challenge its very own presumptions (non SNP voices of Scottish independence; a voice of neoliberalism which is not pre-supposed as ‘impartial’) will be the start of a process which could stimulate long term democratic involvement, representation and participation.

We should recognize and celebrate the BBC’s position and often realised potential at producing specialised programming around an ethical focus that Nick Fraser calls “the old values of truth, objectivity, etc.”. Yet there is work to be done. At present, ‘speciality’ is tantamount to ‘minority’, referring to the kind of programming consumed by a remarkably select – and generally well educated - demographic; the margin, meanwhile, is little to be seen. But the potential to widen the parameters of what interests are catered for, to break the top-down transmission of taste and interest, is both pivotal and urgent. Providing cameras to local community groups, microphones to aspiring poets and webspace to marginalised campaign groups would be a start. Far from blustering over the difficulties of catering for everybody, the BBC should focus its energies on channeling the vitality and expertise of its talented personnel - to assist and give voice to the many struggling to negotiate institutions that have far less noble aims than providing a public service. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData