If dissensus is the new normal in Britain, we need a new media

An inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting in Britain launched its report days after the Brexit vote. It holds important clues to how we deal with the current breakdown of consensus.

Des Freedman
1 July 2016

The referendum result of June 24 made millions of people in Britain sit up and think about whether our most important public institutions are fit for purpose. That includes our broadcasters. At a time when the UK appears to be increasingly polarised, to what extent can our television ecology claim to retain the trust, support and loyalty of an unsettled population and fragmenting audiences?

The inquiry into the future of public service television chaired by Lord Puttnam, has published its final report in these very challenging circumstances. We have organized public events around the UK, received high-quality submissions from broadcasters, academics and civil society groups and had conversations with key stakeholders and one thing has become clear: that there is very little agreement on many of the key issues. There isn’t a consensus on the pace of change, on the impact of current developments, on whether television should (or can) be "impartial", on the measures needed to secure public service television, or even on whether we need public service television any more.

Perhaps that is the key: that dissensus, not consensus, is the new normal and that we better get used to the absence of agreement. And perhaps that is one of the failings of our most popular broadcasters: that they have for too long gravitated towards a perceived ‘centre ground’ when this ‘centre ground’ was coming unstuck; that, instead of promoting a multitude of voicesand formats and taking risks, they have too oftenclung to the familiar and acceptable. 

The fact is that precisely because these tendencies are even more pronounced in the commercial marketplace, we need properly independent public service broadcasters more than ever. As the architect Mark Wigley said recently: “The architect’s role is not to give the client exactly what was asked for, but to change the idea of what can be asked for”. We want this from our best broadcasters: we want them to produce high quality content but we also want them to challenge us and to show us things we didn’t know we were interested in or familiar with. 

So we need a creative, spirited and independent public service media to make sense of, and to entertain and animate us. The trouble is that the status quo isn't really an option: technology won't allow it, markets won't allow it and I'm not sure that audiences will allow it either. 

In this context, our report proposes a new deal. We believe that the UK would benefit hugely from a thriving public service ecology and that policymakers need to rediscover the appetite to think creatively about how we can best sustain this ecology. We believe that PSBs should continue to receive special privileges such as EPG protection and universal funding (in the case of the BBC) but they will have to earn these privileges and to raise their game by generating the innovative and relevant content and services that their audiences are demanding. We also need to foster new types of public service content for the digital age, to cater more effectively for all of the audiences of the UK and to address the barriers to entry both on- and off-screen.

In that spirit, we have made a series of recommendations in the report that include the following proposals.

 - We believe that retransmission fees should be paid by pay-TV platforms to public service television operators to address the current undervaluation of public service content by these distributors.

 - We need to future-proof and democratise the BBC: that means a new approach to impartiality that departs from the desirability of a narrow "consensus", more engagement with the digital world, a new and transparent funding regime, a new constitutional settlement in statute and a meaningfully independent appointments system.

For more on this, see openDemocracy's interview with Lord Puttnam: The BBC must confront a "total" loss of trust.

 - We believe that Channel 4 should not be privatised – neither in full or in part – and that the government should clarify its view on Channel 4’s future as soon as possible.

 - We argue that ITV’s commitment to public service needs to be significantly strengthened. For that reason, Ofcom should conduct a review of how best ITV can contribute to the public service ecology for the next decade and beyond, including explicit commitments for programming and investment, alongside a fresh look at the range of regulatory support that can be offered. ITV, we feel, should be asked to take on a more ambitious roleespecially in regional TV and in current affairs.  

 - We’re calling for the creation of a new contestable fund for public service content that would be open to cultural institutions and small organisations and non-profits not already engaged in commercial operations. This would be funded by the proceeds of a levy on the revenues of the largest digital intermediaries and internet service providers and carried out in partnership with PSB bodies.

 - We think that any commitment to diversity must be accompanied by sufficient funds and that public service broadcasters should ring-fence funding specifically aimed at BAME productions.

 - We believe that we need commissioning structures and funding streams that better reflect devolutionary pressures and that budgets for spending in the devolved nations should be wholly controlled by commissioners in those nations.

We have many other recommendations and points to make. Some people are likely to think that they are too contentious or not contentious enough, that they are either too timid or too radical and impractical. The point is, however, that a time of such enormous political uncertainty, we want to find ways to build on television’s strengths and to address its weaknesses. We want to design a public service television ecology that is not beholden to either state or market but puts the interests and needs of the public first and foremost.

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