Social media has strengthened the authority of the BBC

Far from undermining its power, the new hybrid media environment has enabled the corporation to consolidate its news monopoly. 

Aaron Bastani
11 May 2015

“Today, figures such as Nick Robinson (above) and Andrew Neill, enjoy greater gatekeeping functions to the political class than ever before” Image: Chris Boland

In 2006 Time chose “You” as their person of the year. While the magazine had previously selected ideas and inventions rather than individuals for the accolade - such as “The Computer” in 1982 and the “American Soldier” in 2003 - this was arguably their most provocative choice yet. The intention behind it was to herald the arrival of Web 2.0: a new kind of internet where individuals not only enjoyed greater access to information, but were also able to collaborate in ways that were previously impossible. Such changes, Time claimed, empowered the individual at the cost of extant concentrations of power: social, political and economic. Organisational incumbents with previously unquestioned protocol now faced a generational challenge.

Reflecting on this choice almost a decade later, the timing with which it was made could not have been more apposite. 2006 was a tipping-point in a rapidly changing media environment. YouTube officially launched in November 2005 and experienced 65,000 uploads every day within eight months of its release. Meanwhile, Facebook, which first become widely available in 2006, saw 100 million global users in its first two years. Those figures were only the beginning. By 2014 YouTube counted over one billion unique users a month - collectively watching over six billion hours of video a year - while Facebook enjoyed over one billion active users every day.

Time’s choice reflected how such changes, and their consequences, were commonly viewed by intelligent comment journalism. The overwhelming presumption was that the coincident emergence of digital technologies, and the empowerment of ‘the individual’ that they facilitated, would unleash historic forces on the mainstream media, not only compromising hitherto successful revenue models but even attenuating the relationship between producer and audience.

The other side of the coin

Almost a decade later, it is clear that the emergence of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have allowed audiences to access a greater multiplicity of views than before, and with that better information. What is often overlooked, however, is that they have also furnished significant autonomy and celebrity to senior, more established journalists within larger media organisations -an advent envisaged by few media scholars in 2006.

While debate around networked individualism is most commonly applied to new forms of activism, then, it is equally relevant in making sense of how journalists and public figures now bestride the intersection of media, politics and celebrity. That Laurie Penny, Owen Jones and Russell Brand are often indistinguishable in their activism (or is it journalism?) belies the fusion of politics and media in what Andrew Chadwick has described as the ‘hybrid media system’. It is through an understanding of this changed environment that discussions about the politics of the BBC should now be situated.

For Chadwick the hybrid media system is “built upon interactions among older and newer media logics” with such logics simply defined as “technologies, genres, norms, behaviours and organisational forms in the reflexively connected fields of media and politics.” This implies a certain contingency between the new media environment and older broadcast media, something particularly problematic in the UK given the utter dominance of a single organisation, the BBC, in the domestic TV and radio news market. According to a 2012 report by OFCOM the corporation produces an astonishing 74% of TV news in Britain and at least 70% of radio news, a level unequalled in any other liberal democracy.

Combined with the autonomy and networked individualism that senior journalists within that same organisation enjoy, this has created a troubling set of circumstances. Today, figures such as Nick Robinson and Andrew Neill, enjoy greater gatekeeping functions to the political class than ever before and are able to define and defend the limits of political reasonability in highly unaccountable ways. Rather than opening the field and challenging incumbents, then, the emergence of the new media environment is interacting with the BBC’s monopoly over the domestic news market and, in the process, entrenching existing privilege and power.

It should be added that those with high levels of media capital on supposedly independent spaces, such as Twitter, often only come to do so at the behest of the BBC. One could point to someone like Owen Jones, who with his 280k followers enjoys a greater reach and influence than any think-tank on the centre-left. The position he has built over the last five years, however, was dependent on engaging with the mainstream media, the majority of which, at least in regard to TV and radio, would have inevitably been regular BBC appearances. In digital Britain, as with its analogue predecessor, if you aren’t on the BBC you are unable to truly participate in the national conversation.

A program for media reform?

While people tend to view social media as liberating the news from an old elite the fact is that in Britain, perhaps more than anywhere else, it has deepened the authority and privilege of establishment journalists. Chadwick’s analytical frame helps explain the bizarre coverage of last week’s election, which saw the corporation’s networked individuals unable to discuss anything even remotely contentious.

In order to rectify this, a significant portion of BBC resources and money should be diverted to newer, resource-poor insurgents such as openDemocracy, Resonance FM, Novara Media and others, as well as allowing local media, particularly newspapers, to undertake more resource-intensive local reporting and investigation and bolster their online presence in order to engage younger audiences. A grant-making body, comparable to the Arts Council, for example, could be given some several hundred million pounds from the annual BBC budget to award grants on a bi-annual basis.

While we were told that the digital environment would transform both media and politics, in the process coming to empower “you”, it is increasingly clear that such affordances are far from inevitable. While there is some truth to the claim that many-to-many forms of communication offer powerful, democratising opportunities, such features are by no means intrinsic to the technology and real change will necessitate something one rarely hears in relation to media reform: a program.

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