This is the second in our series of invited pieces about the importance of local and community radio.
by Rob Watson
You would have to be living under a rock not to sense the destructive tension of Brexit in our political debates of recent times. These strains are stretching and distorting our traditional social accords and norms in ways that are intensely polarising and partisan. This polarisation is often played out through our media as a set of narrow and simplistic terms of adversarial engagement: good/bad, in/out, black/white, us/them. As a result, the push for a comprehensive agenda of media reform is now more essential and urgent than ever before.
Coming under question, moreover, is the supposed premise of impartiality and independence of our media. Built on the promise of balance and objectivity in programming and reporting, we look to the idea of impartiality in broadcast media as a protection against manipulation and misinformation in our political debates. Increasingly, however, this seems to be limited to a few public-relations savvy spokespeople flourishing press releases, who simply contradict one another for the sake of a well-paid media-gig, rather than providing comprehensive evidence, that we as readers, listeners and viewers can independently test.
Social and civic views across the spectrum of opinion are too often represented in mainstream media programming and publishing as polarised and dogmatic, on the one hand, or nostalgic and wishful on the other. Indeed, for some, the idea of a centre-ground space of civic engagement and consensus building has itself become a sign of betrayal and treachery. The idea of a centerground gets tossed about as a label of scorn against anyone who wants to explore imaginative and deliberative ideas that are different from the tried and tested received wisdoms and media practices that we are familiar with.
The roots of this heightened sense of anxiety about the role of mainstream corporate media in our civic life is deeply embedded and won’t be assuaged as long as mainstream media organisation are susceptible to the charge that they are dominated by vested interests, elitism and ideological dogmatism. Which they are.
In these circumstances, many feel that the commercial and public service culture of mainstream media is letting us down. Too often commercial advantage wins out over social and civic needs. Too often professional self-interest closes-down alternative ways of engaging with people outside of tight-knit specialised circles. Too often some seek to promote the promise of technological alternatives as magical thinking, when the real problem is a lack of thinking about people as social and creative individuals embedded within their communities, networks and neighbourhoods, living their lives in complex and complicated ways.
The evidence that our mainstream media is failing us can be found when we simply reflect on the extent to which, after engaging with a mainstream media report, we are too often none the wiser about the needs and fundamental social motivations of our fellow citizens. It is easier to ascribe people to categories of intransigence or ignorance, than it is to find out what it is that defines our common human experience, and that which unites us.
What we need, therefore, is to support an alternative approach to media reform that revisits our models of media regulation and management. We need to change the fundamental approach that we take to media engagement. Rather than retaining our assumptions about mass-media systems, borne from the age of mass communications in the twentieth century, we need, instead, to support and embed forms of media that are dispersed, creative, accessible and participatory.
This means investing in forms of community media practice that are people-focussed, and which are fit for the distributed and decentred cultures, networks and communities of the twenty-first century. If we want better media, we have to be able to make this media ourselves. The role of government and regulation should be to clear the path so that a pluralistic media ecology can emerge. A media eco-system that is made up of sustainable alternative models of media provision. Some centralised and nation-based, but most decentralised and locally defined.
To this end Ofcom should be broken up. Ofcom is not fit for purpose. Its essential role is as an economic regulator that manages resources and technical platforms. Ofcom plays only a cursory role in promoting media pluralism, media literacies, creative diversity and social inclusivity. Quite why we need a national media content regulator is beyond me? Ofcom is effectively a central committee worthy of a Soviet-Bloc state in the 1970s. It is ridiculous that Ofcom can decide what music is played on a radio station in Bedford or Glasgow. Let local people make these decisions in their own interests, not some technocratic managers in London.
If Ofcom can be split in this way, the development of a pluralistic systems in which citizens are entitled to produce and distribute their own media content should be the priority of the new content focused regulator. This means giving priority to social value and social gain objectives in licencing and regulation, in which not-for-profit and commercial organisations have to demonstrate that the media content they create, share and profit from, has demonstrable social outcomes in terms of public education and social understanding.
Community radio in the UK is already regulated and managed on these grounds. The problem, though, is that the money hasn’t flowed into the community media sector in the way that it should. If we continue to pauperise our community media organisations, then the passion, commitment and imagination of many thousands of volunteers around the country will be lost and wasted, when it could be remarkable social asset.
There is a groundswell, in my view, for more fundamental reform of our media and the way that our civic conversations are held and facilitated. On the one hand this involves questioning the role of the governing organisations that regulate media because they are no longer fit for purpose. While on the other hand, there is a desire to create and produce media from the ground-up that is more responsive to the needs and interests of people embedded in neighbourhoods, communities and interest groups.
Rather than waiting for someone to find the solution, my advice is that if you want to reform the media, you can start by getting involved as a volunteer in your local community media project, radio station or community newspaper.
This post is written in a personal capacity.