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.
People can be excluded for technical reasons, such as not having access to broadband in their area or a programme not having closed captions, or for financial reasons. And they can also be excluded if media doesn’t reflect their lives (see public media are… democratic). We need a media system that caters for different audiences but also creates shared spaces 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 how much we need media platforms which fully represent the 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 into the Future of TV 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
- has popular content that reaches mass audiences, and caters for the interests and needs of minorities (the intracultural), while also allowing minorities to communicate with each other and with cultural majorities (the intercultural)
Q: Do our 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. As more content moves online, ensuring everyone has access to affordable full fibre broadband will be an important part of maintaining a universal service. There are lots of debates about whether the licence fee is financially accessible, and proposals to replace it with a fairer system where people on low incomes pay less or are exempt.
Public broadcasters do still provide a mix of genres and content, and though they rarely reach the mass audiences they did a few decades ago, major events like the Olympics, or entertainment shows such as Strictly Come Dancing can still bring in tens of millions of viewers. The BBC has a number of intracultural services such as the Welsh language S4C and the BBC Asian network, though these are often vulnerable to cuts and don’t serve all minorities (e.g. the UK’s half a million Polish speakers). 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, but there have been suggestions that the algorithms on iPlayer and 4oD could be redesigned to suggest a variety of content rather than programmes that are similar to things you’ve previously watched.
Q: Do other media serve everyone?
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 within those communities aren’t excluded e.g. making sure digital content is technically accessible for people with disabilities. Making content financially accessible can be challenging, especially as independent media often have to use subscription models to sustain themselves. Overall, our public broadcasters have the biggest responsibilities to serve everyone, especially to create spaces for intercultural conversations.