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Introducing our new series: what is public service?

Today Our Beeb launches a new series on public service in the post-Brexit age. Here editor Ellie Mae O'Hagan explains what inspired the series.

The former Shadow Chancellor on Strictly Come Dancing. Picture by: Ian West / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.A study released in August by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) revealed the importance of public service media to a healthy democracy. According to the study, countries with stronger public service media have a high degree of press freedom, higher voter turnout than in other countries with weaker public service media, lower levels of right-wing extremism and better control of corruption. While we can’t say these trends are caused by public service media, the study does show how these factors are connected – and therefore how important public service media is for a well-functioning public sphere.

The BBC describes itself as the world's leading public service broadcaster. And while the average Brit might associate the BBC with flagship shows like Strictly Come Dancing, or exemplary sports coverage, or Christmas adaptations of Victorian literature, the EBU study clearly shows that the BBC’s role in British society is deeper and more profound than that – and its responsibility towards the British public is greater than that of broadcasters in the private sector. The BBC is an extension of British democracy.

So what does this responsibility mean for the BBC at a time when the country is deeply divided? According to a recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the EU referendum essentially revealed two nations, separated along economic, educational and social lines. Chief Executive Julia Unwin argues that the study should “act as a beacon for politicians who often talk about representing the concerns of ordinary people.”

How can the BBC represent the concerns of ordinary people? And who are these ordinary people anyway? A Lord Ashcroft poll commissioned very soon after the Brexit vote revealed that ideas such as multiculturalism, feminism and environmentalism were much more likely to be rejected by those who voted Leave than Remain. The divides in Britain are not simply about the economy, but also about our values. How can the BBC be expected to represent everybody and do its duty as a public service, when everybody seems at odds with one another?

This new Our Beeb series will explore the BBC’s role as a public service at a time when it must compete more fiercely than ever with commercial providers, address the rapidly-shifting political climate, and respond to the Charter Renewal process which completes in January 2017. Recommendations have already been made about how the BBC can improve its public service remit, from the Puttnam Report in June, which stated: “The BBC needs to demonstrate further commitments to creative ambition and to address shortfalls in specific areas, for examples its services to BAME audiences, its relationships with audiences in the devolved nations, its institutional commitment to impartiality and its willingness to embrace new types of collaborative partnerships.”

We’ll be looking at some of these issues, and others – everything from what the BBC is doing in Scotland and Wales, to how it can better report climate change, and how the public can be best served in an era increasingly reliant on Facebook. We want to hear from you too. Send us 150 words on how you think the BBC can better represent the public, and we’ll include them throughout the series.

Email: eleanor.ohagan@opendemocracy.net

About the author

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a freelance journalist based in the UK. She tweets: @MissEllieMae


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