Sunday, 13 July 2008

The struggle for the media space in the UK

Citizen, Consumer, and the Media

Do we live in a society in which democratic rights have been facilitated by the media?

The media has given to people of Britain a vast quantity of information about their government, their world, and their society. With the expansion of cable television and new papers the number of sources of information has grown. How could this new information not give the people of Britain information needed to make informed decisions as members of a complex democracy?

The mass media has broken much of the power of the government to control knowledge construction in the UK. The difficult situation of the war in Iraq is well known to almost everyone living in the UK. This would not have been possible 100 years ago. Surely this is a sign of democracy via the media?

But such a view mistakes the mere quantity of information for facilitating democratic rights. Despite the public knowledge about the situation in Iraq and their expressed desire to remove UK troops from the war, the troops remain. It is almost as if the information has had no effect.

A mass media must provide more than just information about comprehensive news and politics to promote the complex process of democracy. To facilitate democratic rights media must provide a voice to a vast range of different interests in the society and to provide spaces in which these voices can work to find solutions to complex social issues. (Murdock 1994, Melucci 1989)

To see how well or poorly mass-media facilitates democratic rights one must look closer at the flood of information the media is delivering to see how identities are constructed in that media, how groups are presented and prejudices are reinforced, how differences in the society are negotiated or ignored and who negotiates them, and, perhaps most importantly, who has the power to determine the content of media and how this power is structured, motivated, and directed.

A more complex question is what a mass-media would have to do to more fully facilitate democratic rights. Though the rise of corporate ownership of the media and influence upon public broadcasting has certainly harmed the facilitation of democratic values, it is not entirely clear what a public broadcasting system can do to counter this. The Peacock Committee found the issue of defining the role and scope of public broadcasting extremely difficult, even finding the BBC’s own account of its function in that area as vague and unrealistic (Scannell 1989).


This paper focuses on television broadcasting. TV broadcasting has been a major focus in the “politics of representation” for a couple of generations. Its directness, its ease of use, and its present relative cheapness continues to make it a predominate media of British society.

Though the paper focuses on British TV the trend of corporations expanding their influence on the mass-media is true of the other forms of media globally with a small group of oligarchs controlling an ever increasing part of the world’s media (Thompson 1995).

In the near future the Internet will certainly provide new publishing and discursive spaces which may promote the rights of citizenship in a complex society better than mass-media does today, but it is too early to tell.

How can television impact democracy?

The information rights of full citizenship demand more than a few hours of news and political programs a week. Certainly the media must contain channels of extensive news about the world and politics, but this is not enough. The work of democracy is done mostly beyond elections but in regular discussions between identities to work out problematic issues that prevent certain groups from obtaining full citizenship or promote the power of other groups. These rights demand that media provides space where individuals can accomplish two requirements of full citizenship:

  1. Diversity: Groups must find spaces that reflect the interests of their identity and affirm their legitimacy. They must provide a wide range of news relating to their needs and political position. In these spaces diverse identities can have a form to acknowledge themselves, express their particular concerns and demand their rights.
  2. Discourse: There must be spaces where different voices can discuss the issues facing society. Issues must be reviewed by the largest possible set of voices not just targeted to their own interest groups, but interacting with the widest range of other views. (Murdock 1994) In these spaces diverse voices must work to build a united social identity, to discovery their mutual responsibilities and their interdependency, and to work to create a collective identity that respects diversity.

Diversity and Discourse must work together so that distinct groups can develop a deeper understanding of their situation while engaging as a “demos” to form an ever change new national identity necessary for a democracy.

The Viewer as Citizen and Consumer

To see how media fails to meet these it is mass media constructs two identities for its views, that of citizens and consumers. Both, I argue, presently fail to meet these two requirements.

In traditional public service broadcasting BBC constructed its viewers as citizens of Britain. Traditionally BBC stressed an imposed ideal aiming to create a unity of viewers around a single national identity. Since costs are covered via a tax on televisions BBC was to a great degree independent of market pressures. In theory as a independent corporation it was also free of government pressure. But the effort to construct a single British identity grew more and more problematic in the ever more diverse Britain after World War II, during the crisis of representation and identity and impacted much of the west at that time.

In the United States a model of for profit television evolved constructing its viewers as consumers. Television shows aimed to attract a diversity of viewers who would then serve as commodities the broadcasters sold to advertisers. Market pressures will drive such a model to construct channels around a range of identities to reduce the cost of unit advertising by providing channels that communicate to consumers with shared commercial behaviours. Thus identities are niche markets.

The history of television in Britain has been a struggle between these two models. But each model does not support the full requirements of communication rights in a complex democracy.

The citizen model traditionally stressed a unity and aims to provide a space for diverse people to “meet” in a common discourse. But the discourse that aimed to construct citizens would stress a single unity, a single vision of what it meant be a human in UK democracy over recognizing the diversity that exists in the nation.

Therefore a media which see itself as serving citizens will tend to stress the unity of the nation at the expense of diversity. It will tend to serve the interest of nations to which the viewers are citizens, over other identities like gender, ethnicity, or class. One is a citizen of a nation and all citizens are citizens of the same nation. One joined single identity.

Neo-liberals would counter that a free market approach to broadcasting along the lines of publishing would reach a larger diversity of people. But the danger of a media built around the consumer model is that all power over content goes to corporations motivated by profit. True the consumer model provides more diverse programming, but it constructs its viewers as commodities with little or not concern for their interests or the difficult political issues that might turn off advertisers.

The work of democracy is problematic. Programs aiming to provide a space for competing identities to work out compromise and understanding are risky programs. Clashes of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation can become heated and emotional and will almost certainly scare advertisers away.

The Case of British Broadcasting: From Citizen to Consumer

The history of British broadcasting has been an effort to find some synthesis between these two views. But at present the consumer model clearly has won over the citizen model.

Starting with radio and then early television the BBC followed a citizenship model. Programs stressed a unified identity and heritage while ignoring dissent along lines of class, race, and Britain’s imperial heritage. Events like the coronation of Queen Elizabeth were presented as events of national celebration of a unified island with a single heritage.

As early as the 1950s the creation of ITV as a quasi-corporation trying to mediate between the models of consumer and citizens did provide a more populist space less inline with the official “sound of Britain” and able to expand the number of voices represented in British television.

During the 1960s and the 1970s the limitations of this fictional unity at BBC and the single ITV compromise had contributed to a “crisis of representation.” New groups were demanding representation and validation in the media. These emerging liberation movements around ethnicity, gender, class, and region raised questions not only about the lack of positive representations, but as to the corrupting power of sexism, racism, elitism, and regionalism in television broadcasting and its impact on the way people constructed knowledge about their world (Murdock 1994).

This crisis came at a time when new technology opened a previous unimagined opportunity to broadcasters to turn television in to a publishing media with a vast array of channels. In the late 1970s the Anna Committee had hoped that the emerging rise of cable would, in time, resolve this crisis by abolishing spectrum scarcity.

The solution, which has characterised the evolution of British television, was to create more and more channels tailored to more and more identities. Cable would give a voice to every group that BBC and ITV could never hope to meet.

But the process was undermined by the fact that cable was essentially handed over to the consumer model with corporations gaining a larger and larger extent of the power to determine the majority of program. This did provide that channels would be created for a wide range or viewers, and that these channels would not be under the control of the unified nationalistic ideology of the government. But it insured that profit would be an ever increasing motive in the formation of television content. It made the advertiser the principle arbitrator of what was and was not on television, not the identities wishing to express themselves. Free market notions that advertisers will support what sells fail to take in to account the complex process of brand identification, and the danger of being associated with a identity against other identities. I would imagine their would not be many advertisers bidding for air time during shows where Muslim youth in the UK express their anger and the economic, political, and global issues of the day, and there are therefore few programs like this. But there is a flood of TV reality shows and sitcoms devoid of serious discourse flooding in from the United States.

Though it is true cable has produced a great variety of voices for different identities, these identities are viewed entirely in an economic and marketing model and not a political model. These channels are created to pursue niche markets and provide their viewers as commodities to advertisers. In the economic model no pressure exists to insure that the political and social interests of these groups are identified, refined, or expressed. All the pressure is to create an attractive commodity, a channel which not only reach niche markets but does nothing to endanger the brand identity of the advertiser.

Diversity in a corporate model is dependent on the ability of channels to make profit. Interest groups will be judged as their value as niche markets, meaning that white females or queer professional men will likely continue to receive more attention than new immigrants or single mothers. The consumer model gives a voice to identity based on their disposable income and not social needs. New groups with such income receive ever increasing programming directed to them, while many in the most need of a voice are ignored.

Another key problem with the cable solution is the fact that many of the people most in need of new representation in the democracy do not have the economic capacity to rent cable.

Thus this resolution of the crisis of representation has provided spaces for some identities and not others. On could argue it has even further isolated the minority without the income or access to television to be given a space or included in discourse, helping to make worse the growing rift in British society between the expanding middle classes and the urban ethnic poor.

I would note that the June 7th London bombers felt the need to make video interviews before their attacks. How much of their motivation came from the need to have their voices finally heard on television? One might even argue that the need of certain identities to somehow access the media has helped to give rise to modern terrorism which aims to use violence to open spaces for itself on the media. The martyr video is perhaps a genre of identities desperate to be affirmed in the media. In a world where mass-media has become the mediator of all identity, all voice and all politics those excluded may go take extremely desperate and violent measures just to gain some air time.

I would even argue that the mass-media in its reach and volume has managed to flood out more local voices without access to it. Cable television and the private and public interests that control them have managed to silence the most marginal groups by flooding the culture in a sea of shallow content that does not acknowledge them. The ability to demonstrate, petition the government, protest, and speak in the community has been reduced to nothing if it remains outside of the spaces created by the mass-media. In a way mass-media has removed voices from culture as it as given voice to other groups.

Taking Account

So the conversion of British television viewers from citizens to consumers has resulted in more limited diversity, but it has also expended the power of economic interests over social and political interests. And the diversity is not full and not mandated to be full, it is entirely market driven.

Perhaps most disturbing there is no clear economic incentive to engage these diverse identities in a collective discourse in order to work the serious problems of creating democracy.

All of this places much of the load for discourse and meeting the least advantaged needs for identity on public broadcasting. But in the era of public-private partnership BBC’s independence from economic forces is itself under pressure. With the global rise of neo-liberalism more and more pressure is placed on public media to compete with private media as it avoids offending the government.

Despite these problems it cannot be denied that there are a great variety of visions available to most British television viewers than 30 years ago. The crisis of representation has been met with a neo-liberal response, but there are now programs targeting many of the groups who were once the victims of prejudice or ignored. But there can be no denial that the new channels have been filled with an ever increasing mass of sheer noise aiming to gain attention.

Perhaps a more perfect use of television to promote the communication rights of “full citizens” in a “complex democracy” is beyond the reach of this technology. The very fact that the media is mass, with few producers and high costs consumed by large groups of people (Thompson 1995) will always insure that only the State or business can fund it.

Americans call television the “boob tube” and the “idiot box” and generally find the idea of television promoting democracy as beyond the qualities of the media itself. To average Americans viewers are constructed as “couch potatoes” and not citizens or consumers. In the American culture I grew up in TV was popular, but classed with soft drinks, candy bars, and cigarettes: harmful benefits of the consumer age.

America seems to have accepted the limits of television as it exists today in promoting democracy. The question remains if these limits are innate to the structure and economics of television or if a more democratic television is possible through a new concept of citizenship and a new kind of public broadcasting.

At present there seems to be no clear road map as to how to fully engage the diversity of identities in a collective discourse via broadcasting. There is also a question as to how the best of the models of consumer and citizen can be synthesised to promote diversity and unity of society to the ends of creating a culture that can work together to work out the problems or inequality and prejudice and to produce a highly informed pool of voters who feel empowered to participate in the democratic process. For example the BBC coverage of Prime Minister Questions seems more like a football match, and the endless broadcast of committee hearings are boring to almost everyone. Just providing the space to debate issues and show government in action is not enough, public broadcasting must do more to make clear how individuals can exercise power in the complex and often archaic British Democracy. As an American I find the complexity of British democracy bewildering, and I have found little on BBC to clarify it.

I would close with a story from a job I had a few years ago with Vacher-Dod Parliamentary Companion. I was rebuilding their web site and needed to learn more about how the British political process worked, but despite having access to experts and 130 years of extensive records I found the process bewildering. When I presented to my client, a man well connected in Whitehall with the issues I was having his response was that the process was suppose to be confusing, that it served the interests of those in power that it was confusing.

Melucci A. Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society, London Hutchinson Radius (1989)

Murdock, Graham Controlling Broadcasting from ‘Corporate dynamics and broadcastings futures’ edited by Meryl Aldrige and Nicholas Hewiit, Manchester University Press, (1994)

Scannell, Pady Media, Culture and Society Voll11 SAGE, London, Newbury Park and New Dehli 1225-166 (1989)

Thompson, John B. The Media and Modernity (Chapter 1 and 2, pp23-37, 75-80) Blackwell Publishing and Stanford University Press (1995)

Oh and by the way Fuck Boris Johson!!!!!!!

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