Inequalities in society are often made worse when people don’t have access to media and reliable information. Public media needs to serve everyone, recognising the needs and desires that different groups will have, while also creating shared spaces for engaging with the issues that affect us all.
Q: What’s the problem?
Everyone needs media that informs, educates and entertains them to fully participate in society, and not being able to access media can make society even more unequal. In the past year, many groups who are already marginalised – because of language, poverty, or hearing or visual impairments – will have struggled to find good information about coronavirus, or what government support has been available during the pandemic, further excluding them.
‘The public’ is obviously made up of many different kinds of people, who need and want different things from the media. So we need a media system that caters for those different audiences, but that also creates a shared space so that different groups can understand each other and have a sense of being part of the common culture. We’ve seen with divisive issues such as Brexit how damaging it can be an issue becomes very polarised, and there is no media platform that represents the full range of positions people hold.
Q: What’s the solution?
We need public media that truly serves everyone. While this is challenging, the framework for public service broadcasting has some long-standing models for what this means. The Puttnam report says that public service media is universal if it:
- is available to everyone, so no one is excluded because of their location, physical abilities or ability to pay
- provides a wide mix of genres and content
- produces popular content that reaches mass audiences
- creates spaces for intracultural conversations which cater for the interests and needs of minorities
- hosts intercultural spaces which allow minorities to communicate with each other and with cultural majorities
Q: How do public broadcasters serve everyone?
In the UK today, anyone with a TV or internet connection can access the main channels on Freeview, and these channels have to provide access services for most of their broadcast content. (There is debate about how financially accessible this is, discussed more here.) Increased competition from other channels, and now from streaming services like Netflix, mean that our public broadcasters rarely reach the mass audiences they did a few decades ago. However, Saturday night entertainment shows such as Strictly Come Dancing, and the Covid briefings over the past year, can still bring in tens of millions of viewers.
The best-known examples of intracultural services are BBC channels such as the Welsh language S4C, and the Gaelic channel. There are of course many minorities who are not provided for in this way, such as the UK’s half a million Polish speakers. And these services are often vulnerable to cuts, as with the BBC Asian network which was saved from closure in 2011, but with a massively reduced budget. Channel 4 has a specific remit to serve minority audiences, but this was arguably more obvious in the 1980s and 90s – when it was producing groundbreaking TV such as Desmond’s – than it is today.
The intercultural space is probably the hardest to achieve, and where our public broadcasters are at their weakest. For example, the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement has not been clearly communicated to the other nations of the UK. Another challenge is that this intercultural space has often achieved through the broadcasting schedule, e.g. moving a show like Goodness Gracious Me from Monday to Friday nights for its second series. It’s not yet clear how to connect up audiences like this as people increasingly watch content on demand rather than live.
Q: How about other media?
The idea of being ‘for everyone’ is more complicated when we are not talking about national broadcasters. Our mainstream national newspapers often claim to speak for the ‘silent majority’ but are usually very partisan, and certainly don’t pretend to be spaces where minorities can speak to one another, or to a broader audience.
With local media organisations, or ones set up to serve particular communities, we could say that being ‘for everyone’ means paying attention to who has power in that context and making sure that marginalised people aren’t excluded. This can be tricky, especially when independent media have to use subscription models to sustain themselves. But our public broadcasters have the biggest responsibility here, especially in fostering intercultural conversations.
Q: How could this change in the future?
There are many ideas for new digital tools that could make public media better at serving everyone, such as:
- A public search engine for news, which helps people find high quality content, rather than just prioritising based on popularity
- Publicly owned and controlled aggregators for independent media, which allow small publishers to share and speak to each other’s audiences
- Changing the algorithms on iPlayer and 4OD so that they don’t just prioritise similarity, but help you access a mix of genres and types of programming, just as you would if you sat down to watch it live