The Manifesto for a People’s Media is a comprehensive re-think of our media systems, which places citizens and their interests at the heart of media in the UK. A key element of the manifesto is the proposal for a new regulatory institution, tentatively named ‘Mediacom’, responsible for broadcasters and social and digital media. Mediacom would take a decentralised, flexible approach to accountability built on localised engagement and ongoing discussions about appropriate standards for harm and redress in media outlets. In this blog, Lee Edwards draws on her research findings to reflect on how this type of approach to regulation, far from being radical, may be better aligned with how the public want to engage with their media than current arrangements.
The Manifesto for a People’s Media is a crucial reminder that we can imagine something different for institutional systems that seem immutable. In the case of media, change has often seemed possible yet remained remote: new horizons were optimistically forecast with the advent of the digital era, for example, where online spaces would invite us to engage with new perspectives, voices, show us different ways of thinking about and seeing the world, extending our insights beyond the immediate.
As plenty of research has shown, this utopian version of the media ecology has not fully come to pass. While there is no question that online spaces facilitate visibility and connectivity for voices that legacy media forms might have shut down more easily (as the current protests in Iran have amply demonstrated), previously powerful media actors – global broadcasters, investors and advertisers – have also successfully extended that power into online media, and remain the outlets that most of us reach for, most regularly (see the Media Reform Coalition’s Media Ownership Report, and Ofcom’s latest report on News Consumption in the UK, for detail). Online, networked media power builds on legacies of institutional dominance and colonial hierarchy that continue to shape who gets to speak, who is silenced, and how information circulates across the media outlets we engage with (Castells, M. 2013; Quijano, A. 2000).
Yet, media are, ostensibly ‘ours’ – while public service media are explicitly charged with a citizen-oriented, public interest role, even commercial broadcasters are oriented towards the ‘audience’ as the holy grail, the indicator of success. The greater the audience, the better (viz, more popular and more lucrative) the media; or, the greater the audience, the more effective the public service.
Should we be satisfied with this ‘audience’ role? Audiences have never been completely passive, of course (Livingstone, S. 2019) – and some of the most successful forms of media engage our agency in the very fabric of programming. So perhaps this is evidence that we are genuine stakeholders in media, that our power is recognised.
Being recognised as stakeholders in media, however, requires more than recognition as an audience, or as a market. The crucial role played by media in the constitution of a truly informed, deliberative democratic environment, means our ‘stakeholder’ status must be defined in terms of our citizenship first, not our media consumption. And citizens expect more than just a good product from ‘their’ media; they expect accountability from those who work on their behalf.
For this reason, the proposal for a new regulator like Mediacom, is a particularly vital component of the Media Manifesto. It is essential because if we are to change the media system in ways that can deliver more to the public interest, we also need to put the public – and how they see their interests – at the heart of overseeing those changes, to ensure they are fit for purpose. Ofcom has had regulatory responsibility for media since its inception, but in an expanded media environment, and for audiences that want to have more of a voice in the way that public service media works, a centralised, top-down system will not deliver.
In Autumn 2020, as part of Ofcom’s Small Screen, Big Debate consultation about the future of public service media, we hosted an online citizen’s assembly with over 40 members of the public. We gave them information about how the public service media system currently works, and asked them to reflect on possible futures for public service media in the UK.
Our participants offered rich reflections on what they value about the current system and what they would like to change. Independence from both government and commercial influence was perceived as essential, as were high quality programming and accurate, truthful journalism. Many of the comments reflected the importance of diversity in production, on-screen, and particularly in powerful decision-making roles. Diversity was not rigidly defined in terms of identity characteristics but also incorporated regional diversity, as well as niche interests, such as arts and cultural programming that would not attract commercial funding.
Beyond these characteristics of the media industry itself, protecting the public interest also loomed large in their discussions. In particular, the importance of ensuring access for everyone; of accountability to the public; and of regulation that could ensure high standards of practice, effective protection for audience data, and regular review of the public service remit, were all important priorities.
The findings from the citizens’ assembly made clear that the current regulatory context, is both too rigid and too narrow for the public’s expectations of public service media. A regulator that genuinely works in the public interest would have to be able to genuinely understand the range of interests in public service media, in a way that accurately reflects the whole of the UK’s citizenry. It would have to be flexible enough to address changing circumstances (such as the advent of the misinformation / post-truth era). And it would have to be powerful enough to insist on media independence and accountability to the public (not only to Parliament), in a consequential way.
A regulatory model that centralises control cannot deliver on these requirements. The participants in our assembly did not want to be spoken for – they wanted to be spoken to and with, to know that the people making decisions within media organisations, about media’s shape, structure and content, would hear and understand what their interests are. They expected a voice in defining ‘the public interest’ in relation to their public service.
The model of Mediacom, and the decentralised, devolved BBC and Channel 4 envisaged in the Manifesto for a People’s Media, have the capacity to deliver this vision. In fact, the ideas for Mediacom are remarkably aligned with our participants’ views. It would be a regulator that gathers information from regional citizens’ media assemblies, fosters flexible modes of engagement with the public throughout the UK, and facilitates not only participation but genuine influence through feedback loops and responsive change. As such, it could have a much greater capacity for meeting the public interest, as defined by the public themselves, than is possible with Ofcom’s current structure and constraints.
Our participants were very clear: they want a public service media industry that reflects them and their lives, feeds their interests, and supports their democratic engagement. These are big demands that require a radical re-thinking of the way our current public service media operate.
‘Radical’, today, is often interpreted as ‘extreme’. But perhaps we need to rethink what kind of approach to public service media we might define as ‘extreme’. Perhaps the most ‘radical’ form of public service media is one that departs too far from the public, that removes broadcasters and funding from the public service ecology and limits the scope and scale of public media in favour of market competition.
The risk here is that radicalism removes the public interest from our media ecology altogether. In contrast, the Manifesto for a People’s Media, and Mediacom are much more aligned with what the public are already saying about what they want to see in ‘their’ public service media. As such, they are a perfectly rational set of options for systemic change that could genuinely support the public interest in our complex media world.
Professor of Strategic Communication and Public Engagement, LSE
Castells, M. 2013. Communication Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Quijano, A. 2000. Coloniality of power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla; Views from the South, 1(3): 533-580.
Livingstone, S. 2019. Audiences in an age of datafication: critical questions for media research. Television and New Media, 20(2): 170-183.