Reflecting national identity - Sample Essay

Construct a Defence of Public Service Broadcasting based on its role in reflecting national identity. What drawbacks does this approach to P.S.B have? The future of the Public Service Broadcast is currently much debated. The introduction of services such as Digital and Cable television, where viewers only pay for the channels they want to watch, and which are not bound to Public Service Broadcasting regulations gives rise to the call for changes to be made in the regulating of terrestrial television, and the license fee to be abolished. This essay will aim to illustrate how valuable Public Service Broadcasting is, particularly in creating a sense of national identity and consider the drawbacks this approach has.

The underlying beliefs of Public Service Broadcasting have foundations in Reithian Values. Lord Reith, the Managing Director of the British Broadcasting Company from 1923 to 1926 produced a manifest in 1925 outlining his recommendations for a broadcasting service. The original concept of Public Service Broadcasting was a public utility that would regulate radio and television, and have a social responsibility to broadcast quality programmes that created and maintained an informed electorate.

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As Tracey suggests in his book “The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting” “through the diversity and quality of its programmes – we can be better than we are: better served, better amused, better informed, and thus, better citizens.” (1998, p.19). Broadcasters would also have a responsibility to express the majority views of society, “the middle ground upon which all men of good sense could agree” (Curran, J P.296). At the same time, it would also allow minority voices to be heard. Reithian ideas still form the main purpose of the BBC today. As outlined on their website, the BBC aims “to enrich people’s lives with great programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.” (2004)

Public Service Broadcasting is hard to define, although it has often been interpreted as having four meanings; good television, worthy television, television that would not exist without some form of public intervention and the institutions that broadcast this type of television. In 1985, the Broadcasting Research Unit drew up eight main principles of Public Service Broadcasting. The main beliefs were that broadcast programmes should cater for the whole population of the United Kingdom, no matter where they lived, or what their interests. It is also stipulated that minority groups should be provided with programming, particularly disadvantaged groups such as the deaf.

Broadcasting would be funded by the mass public, through the simple payment scheme of the TV license. Not only does the universality of payment mean that everyone would pay the same amount for receiving the same service, but it would fulfil the Public Service Broadcasts principles of broadcasting programmes that are unbiased, and as Hartley et Al suggest in “Key Concepts in Communication and Cultural Studies”, this “simple system of public sponsorship allows for the insulation of broadcasters from the vested interest of governments, political parties, commercial or corporate power.” (1994, p.251).

As Tracey explains, in a public utility such as the Public Service Broadcast, television producers receive money from the licensing fee to make programmes. “In a commercial system they make programmes to acquire money. (1998 p.18) Therefore, in a commercial system broadcasters are less likely to produce educational, informative programmes, or programmes catering for minorities or diverse tastes, but would show more entertainment programmes, programmes that are popular with the majority of the population in order to gain funding.

This would mean that broadcasting would become structured to compete for audience viewing figures and popularity, rather than competition to produce good programmes. In today’s society public service broadcasts have been financed by a variety of sources; the licence fee, advertising revenue and a tax on profits of commercial companies. However, “these sources of finance did not compete with each other, and were key to the possibility of political independence.” (Seaton, 1991. p.295).

The final principle of Public Service Broadcasting is that it should recognise the value of the national view. The public sphere is an arena for social interaction and public debate. Broadcasting is powerful in promoting social unity through its coverage of national events such as royal occasions, sporting events and the news. “As a national service, broadcasting might bring together all classes of the population.” (Scannell 1990, p.14) Broadcasting creates the social cement for a national identity.

But how is National Identity defined? Before this can be answered, the definition of Government and state, and their relationship with the media and broadcasting needs to be considered. There is a clear distinction between the state and government. Government is the executive body which passes laws, while the state administers affairs. The state can be seen as part of a class structure similar to the superstructure in the classic Marxist model of theory. This model considers capitalist society in which the population is divided into class according to the criteria of wealth and occupation. In this model, individuals have no power or influence on the state.

The state holds the power of the judiciary, the church and the military. In today’s society this model still applies, although we now consider the media to be the fourth estate, which maintains the capitalist state in power. Therefore the state can be seen as self sustaining, separate from society and therefore not directly accountable to it. This model can be applied to Public Service Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. Producers are seen as the elite upper class, with a degree of self government, and therefore independent from the state, however they still have to work within guidelines and a public charter.

Since the inception of Public Service Broadcasting, there have been several models for the state and these are linked closely to theories of the media, and these must be examined when considering the role of the state in broadcasting. During the early 1920’s amidst post war concerns, Public Service Broadcasting followed an authoritarian model. The state believed that broadcasting had the potential to have immense power over the public and society, and therefore it should be controlled by the state. “The operation of so important a national service ought not to be allowed to become an unrestricted commercial monopoly.” (Scannell 1990 p.12).

However, following a report made by the very first broadcasting committee in 1923, broadcasting became a public utility guided by public interest. In spite of this, broadcasters were still heavily answerable to the state, and rather than producing programmes which followed public interests, the state wanted to lead the way. “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy”. (Reith 1925: 3).The 1977 Annan Report marked a change in Public Service Broadcasting as it began to move towards libertarianism and “the new right theory of the state”.

The Annan report called for “a free market place in which balance could be achieved through the multiplicity of voices”. (Seaton 1991, p.296). It followed Adam Smith’s theory of rejecting regulation, except to ensure an open market. It gives the individual the opportunity to express their opinions; everyone should be catered for, rather than broadcasting trying to offer moral leadership. This concept was key to the broadcasting act of 1990.

However, it did raise some issues over rationalisation, and whether humans can truly judge what is best for them. Therefore, there was a shift towards the Neo Pluralist Conception of the state; an acceptance of capitalism, and the suggestion that because society is so complex it needs governing. The BBC is a good example of this, as on the Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport website: The broadcasters have a certain amount of independence, however, “Within the framework provided by the Charter and Agreement, the BBC Governors are responsible for ensuring that the BBC meets all its statutory and other obligations.”

The Governors are elected by parliament, and the Secretary of State the power to “approve and review the operation of new licence-fee funded public services”. (2004) This model supports the social responsibility theory, the media has an obligation to society, and the government regulates them to ensure that they are acting responsibly. Therefore the state intervenes to a certain extent to ensure that society’s expectations are being fulfilled, and “broadcasters operate in the public interest and are responsive to public opinion”. (Seaton, 1991, p301).

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