DEMOCRATISING THE AIRWAVES

My second contribution to ‘The Case for Change’  in UK Press Gazette, 10 November 1986. Some of these ideas resurfaced when I worked on a Labour Party policy document in 1993, and the NCVO Broadcasting Consortium submission on BBC Charter Renewal in 1994.

There are some options we can be sure will not be considered by Mrs Thatcher’s inter-departmental working party on the future of British broadcasting.

In its Media Manifesto, the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) outlines reforms aimed at injecting a sense of representative democracy into the management and structure of broadcasting. It proposes devolution of control – not to the private sector or government-appointed quangos, but to committees of consumers and media workers.

Before everyone throws up their hands in anguish at the effrontery of the idea, think about the bureaucracies that currently control what is pumped into the homes of millions every day. Do they guarantee the democratic rights of consumers, or are they more of a buttress for what to the outsider appears to be a monolithic industry?

Neither Barry Took (BBC’s Points of View) nor Gus MacDonald (Channel Four’s Right to Reply) would suggest that they can provide an adequate mouthpiece for the discontented viewer. And letter-writing, phone-ins and public meetings are no more effective a means of airing legitimate grievances, or positive suggestions about programming.

Market research and audience ratings may be of value to commercial advertisers, but precisely what influence they have over programme contents is unclear. When for example, did a poll show that audiences demand the plethora of American material screened on all channels, or the constant repeats on both radio and TV?

Complaints to the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority, then regulator for the commercial sector) or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission give only a semblance of redress to some, and none at all to those made invisible by lack of coverage of their lives and views.

The fundamental flaw in our broadcasting system is in its unrepresentative structure and its lack of accountability. It does not reflect the class, cultural or sexual diversity of society, from the boardroom through the editorial suite to the studio floor.

Yet conventional wisdom tells us we have the best broadcasting in the world, informed by a wealth of experience and governed by ‘the great and the good’. Yet even they were incapable of withstanding government pressure over the Carrickmore incident (BBC’s Panorama editor Roger Bolton was suspended after his team had filmed, but not broadcast, an IRA roadblock ‘stunt’), or last summer’s Real Lives debacle (BBC staff went on strike after their governors, under pressure from the government, previewed and banned broadcast of At the Edge of the Union a documentary containing an interview with IRA leader Martin McGuinness). How will they defend our interests if the guiding hands behind broadcasting become those of international media conglomerates?

Broadcasters are quick to protest that their work must never be subordinated to commercial goals, but what is their objection to drawing ‘the great British public’ into closer contact with its own broadcasting system?

Perhaps it stems from the same prickly, defensive reactions that set in whenever broadcasters are accused of bias. It is easier to dismiss those who constantly complain as tiresome busy bodies who don’t understand the budgetary, technical and political constraints, than to listen, learn and change.

Is there is no significance in the fact that all political parties complain about the coverage of news and current affairs, for instance? And that many different interest groups have similar complaints?

The school of thought espoused by the current Director General of the BBC, Alastair Milne, is that if you are criticised from all sides, you must be getting things about right. Others might draw a rather different conclusion. 

Some pressure groups are treated more sympathetically than others: witness the backing given to (Clean-up-TV campaigner) Mary Whitehouse’s efforts to ambush Channel 4’s eventual acknowledgement of the demand for gay and Lesbian coverage – one of the minorities the new channel was created for.

There is a real sense in which broadcasters and their audience are out of touch with each other. The punters are expected to rely on faceless bureaucrats and a partisan Government for representation. The elderly, people with disabilities, and young people must depend upon the goodwill of mainstream programme-makers for access.

Yet a simple and direct means of enfranchising millions of listeners and viewers already exists. The licensing system is an ideal model for precisely the type of democratisation that Mrs Thatcher and Norman Tebbit insist will put the trades union movement back in the hands of its members.

There is no reason why license applications should not be similar to electoral registration form – identifying adult member of each household and offering them the opportunity to nominate and vote for representatives on Regional Broadcasting Authorities by postal ballot.

Each regional authority could nominate representatives onto the BBC Board of Governors and the IBA, if indeed separate bodies were then necessary. The licence fee could be our guarantee that broadcasting would remain a public service rather than simply a means of making money.

Under a unified system it should be easier to ensure common high standers of diversity and efficiency without interfering with editorial independence. And in return for their access to our airwaves, the independent companies could contribute towards the cost of enfranchising audiences.

More rigorous non-executive advisory panels than exist at present could ensure that minority groups get a hearing, with an appeal system should their advice be ignored. Thus the controversial decision to axe ethnic minority programmes Black on Black and Eastern Eye might have been challenged by viewers and argued out instead of simply being left to the executive in change of Black Programming.

Failure to provide suitable programmes by or for people with disabilities, or indeed to improve the proportion of women, black and disabled people employed within broadcasting could also be debated in public.

This watchdog system would need more teeth and financial resources than are available to similar bodies already operating in passenger transport, the health service, and other public utilities.

Each Regional Broadcasting Authority would have considerable autonomy and two-way access to the national network, with its own budget for programme-making and news coverage, part of which could be used to sponsor independent and broadcast quality community programmes, in response to consumer demand. That would have the dual effect of expanding the diversity of material on air, and increasing earning power from sales and networking.

Making TV and radio studios more accessible to viewers and listeners should increase job opportunities, especially if community radio is given its head and all commercial stations are required to give more airtime to independent minority interest and community productions.

The CPBF’’s manifesto acknowledges that broadcasters, from technicians to news reporters, deserve a greater say in management and programming, But they are not the only experts, and one important step towards democratising the airwaves would be for them to welcome greater involvement from listeners and viewers who bring their own expertise as consumers.

Bringing broadcasting managers, journalists and technicians into closer working contact with their licence-holders would help strip away much of the mystique that surrounds broadcasting, and improve media literacy all round.

Then broadcasters might begin to understand why their efforts are so frequently misunderstood by audiences unaware of the way in which television, especially, has to ‘construct’ its presentation of the world.

It is not helpful to deride unsophisticated suggestions for change simply because they are incomplete or idealistic. What is needed, now more than ever,  is a constructive debate about how to restructure broadcasting to make it more relevant, appreciated, and representative of the diversity of society. 

Otherwise Mrs Thatcher will continue to take the high ground and translate public  dissatisfaction with the complacency of broadcasters into a recipe for free market broadcasting with a consequent reduction in standards, jobs and public accountability.

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