Ofcom Review of Public Service Television Broadcasting, invited submission from Professor Sylvia Harvey.
Submission title: Defining, Maintaining and Strengthening Public Service Broadcasting, 21 January, 2004


Sylvia Harvey

21 January 2004

This submission is in three sections. Part I explores the 'public interest' basis for the regulation of communications. Part II proposes some definitions for public service broadcasting and suggests a possible 'test' for identifying suitable sources for the production of public service television. Part III outlines some of the priorities for maintaining and strengthening public service television.

Part I: The Justification for Public Interest Regulation of Broadcasting

1.1. People in the richer parts of the world are spending more and more of their disposable income on audio-visual pleasures, while those in the poorer parts of the world are still seeking access to clean water, basic foodstuffs, universal primary education and a reliable electricity supply.

1.2. Contemporary broadcasting services in the United Kingdom offer a myriad of specialist 'niche' channels to meet a variety of separate and distinctive tastes and interests. By contrast we have, as a democracy, one electorate, one Parliament and one government. There is arguably a tension here between the radical fragmentation of culture and society reflected by multi-channel broadcasting services and the role of democracy in clarifying conflicts of interest, identifying areas of consensus and promoting the 'general good' and the 'public interest'.

1.3. The new UK regulatory body, Ofcom, seeks to operate in a non-partisan and non-Party-political way. But the remit it has been given by Parliament to 'further the interests of citizens in relation to communication matters' and to 'further the interests of consumers in relevant markets' requires it to address some of the 'bigger picture' political questions indicated above. This is so because both citizens and consumers have an interest in understanding the environment that enables or blocks their aspirations and choices. And since the communications regulatory body plays a part in shaping the information and entertainment environment, broadly conceived, it has the opportunity to become a key player in developing those public communications that feed and sustain the democratic political process.

These communications provide the means for the recognition and expression of our identity and for the shaping, sharing and contesting of our cultural values. And these fundamental processes (of identity formation and cultural development) can be seen to be at work as much in the programme genres of entertainment, drama and sport as in the fields of news, current affairs and documentary.

1.4. After nearly a century of experiments with the 'command economy', we now know that more-or-less free markets, driven by individual human choices, can offer an appropriate method for meeting human needs and for managing the rational allocation of scarce resources. But we also know that there are basic human needs (for food, housing, health care and - increasingly - for information) that cannot always be met by the market. This is self-evidently the case since there are millions of people, in Britain and throughout the world, who have insufficient income and/or insufficient information to function as 'sovereign consumers'. Since the development of universal adult suffrage these millions of people, in their identity as citizens or the children of citizens, claim the right to exist, and the right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'.

1.5. No regulatory body with a democratically accountable brief for public communications in the twenty-first century can ignore these issues, unless it has defined such communication as exclusively a matter of private economic transactions. This restrictive definition is the 'elephant in the corner' of debates about public service broadcasting, it propagates the view that broadcast programmes are nothing but entertainment or information commodities, ignoring their wider social and cultural role.

Part II: Defining Public Service Broadcasting

2.1. Public service television sets standards of excellence in output across the full range of broadcast programming, with work that informs, entertains and educates. Its programmes offer some insight into the social environment that (at least in part) enables or blocks the aspirations and choices of citizens, consumers and children.

2.2. In fulfilling these objectives public service programmes may:

2.3. Public service programmes will:

2.4. Public service programmes will not:

2.5. A suitable 'test' of ability to produce work within this framework will be the track record of a broadcaster or production company, although there must be scope for considered support for newcomers.

Part III: Priorities for Maintaining and Strengthening Public Service Television in the United Kingdom



Sylvia Harvey
Professor of Broadcasting Policy
Principal Associate Director
AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies
Faculty of Media and Humanities
University of Lincoln
Brayford Pool
Lincoln LN6 7TS

Tel: 01522 886431
Email: sharvey@lincoln.ac.uk


Last modified 2 August, 2004 ; web@bftv.ac.uk