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“Public Service” and the Journalism Crisis: Is the BBC the Answer?



Professional journalism is under extraordinary pressure: not only are its traditional business models under enormous strain but it is also regularly accused by the Right of peddling ‘fake news’ and criticized by the Left for failing to play a robust monitorial role. In this situation, there is a temptation to see public service media, and the BBC in particular, as beacons of light in an otherwise gloomy picture. This article attempts to provide a note of caution to those who see the public service model as the most effective means of holding power to account and as the most desirable alternative to the flawed news cultures of both commercial and authoritarian landscapes. It considers some of the structural and institutional factors that constrain the BBC’s journalism and suggests that its intimate relationship with elite power has long undermined its ability to act as a reliable and independent check on power.
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DOI: 10.1177/1527476418760985
“Public Service” and the
Journalism Crisis: Is the
BBC the Answer?
Des Freedman1
Professional journalism is under extraordinary pressure: not only are its traditional
business models under enormous strain but it is also regularly accused by the Right
of peddling ‘fake news’ and criticized by the Left for failing to play a robust monitorial
role. In this situation, there is a temptation to see public service media, and the BBC
in particular, as beacons of light in an otherwise gloomy picture. This article attempts
to provide a note of caution to those who see the public service model as the most
effective means of holding power to account and as the most desirable alternative to
the flawed news cultures of both commercial and authoritarian landscapes. It considers
some of the structural and institutional factors that constrain the BBC’s journalism
and suggests that its intimate relationship with elite power has long undermined its
ability to act as a reliable and independent check on power.
public service broadcasting, BBC, public media, media capture, journalism, impartiality
The Allure of the BBC
If journalism is in crisis (Anderson et al. 2014; Pickard 2011), then who or what can
save it? Of course, this crisis takes many forms, yet whether the crisis affects the for-
merly stable professional models of liberal democracies or authoritarian environments
characterized by clientelism and complicity, one potential solution is regularly pro-
posed: an independent public service news media that is strong enough to defy the
pressure of both government and market and to serve citizens without fear or favor. In
this heady narrative, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in particular that
1Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Corresponding Author:
Des Freedman, Department of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London, New
Cross, London SE14 6NW, UK.
760985TVNXXX10.1177/1527476418760985Television & New MediaFreedman
2 Television & New Media 00(0)
is often claimed to offer the best prospect of impartial, high-quality journalism that is
insulated from narrow considerations of profits or politics.
So, for example, in an interesting collection of case studies that demonstrate how
media in a range of countries—from Latin America to Eastern Europe and from Kenya to
China—have been “captured” by a combination of government and business interests
(Schiffrin 2017), the promotion of “transparently funded public service media” is held up
as a key policy measure that would help address the problem of capture (Nelson 2017). In
the same volume, the economist Joseph Stiglitz recognizes that while many public service
broadcasters are hostages of state power, there is nevertheless an important distinction
between public ownership and government capture: the “BBC and other public broad-
casters are an example of successful government ownership in that programming is bal-
anced, objective, and representative of diverse viewpoints” (Stiglitz 2017, 13). In his own
chapter, Nielsen (2017, 36–37) describes the BBC as “the most famous example of public
service media” that continues to operate with “a high degree of autonomy from govern-
ment and Parliament secured through multi-year charters.”
The attraction of a fearless public service news provider is especially strong in
commercial systems such as the one in the United States, an environment in which the
media’s role as a trusted source of information and facilitator of rational dialogue has
been comprehensively undermined and contested. News outlets, far from remaining
above the ravages of partisan battles and ratings wars, have instead been contaminated
by precisely those same forces. Coverage of the 2016 election, for example, was
relentlessly negative and extraordinarily light on policy, which occupied just one-tenth
of all reports, nowhere near the 42 percent of coverage that was devoted to horserace
coverage of the campaign (Patterson 2016). This is a system in which, because of its
fundamentally commercial orientation, the “elite media” were enthralled by the spec-
tacle of a candidate they professed to abhor but which they literally could not afford to
ignore. The comment by the CEO of CBS that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good
for America but it’s damn good for CBS” (quoted in Pickard 2017) was far from a slip
of the tongue but an honest description of the system’s underlying logic.
So it comes as little surprise to learn that, according to a 2016 poll conducted by the
Reynolds Journalism Institute (Kearney 2017, 16), four of the ten most trusted news
sources for U.S. audiences are from outside the United States, indeed all from the
United Kingdom: the Guardian, the Economist, Reuters, and of course, the BBC. This
confirms data from the Pew Research Center, which revealed that the BBC was one of
the very few organizations that were trusted by American audiences from across the
ideological spectrum—with even those people described as “consistently conserva-
tive,” recording that they believed the BBC was “about equally trusted as distrusted”
(Pew Research Center 2014, 5). Forbes magazine, reflecting this view, notes that the
BBC “is the global standard bearer for excellence in broadcast radio and TV journal-
ism,” sighing, “[i]f only U.S. cable news outlets could follow the BBC’s recipe”
(Glader 2017). Bill Moyers echoes this praise when insisting that, to counter the influ-
ence of Fox News, the United States needs “a journalism more in the mold of the BBC
at its best—unafraid of power and not complicit with it, reporting what conventional
journalism overlooked or wouldn’t touch” (quoted in Hertsgaard 2017). Emily Bell,
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the director of Columbia University’s Tow Centre and someone who is very familiar
with British journalism, has also argued that “America needs a radical new market
intervention” along the lines of the BBC, one that is “independent of individuals or
corporations” (Bell 2017). In an age of both hyperpartisanship and hypercommercial-
ism, a public service organization such as the BBC, which is often seen as independent
of the market and of government, publicly owned, sufficiently resourced, and free of
advertising, appears to offer a genuinely refreshing alternative.
What these commentators (and many audiences) want is a body to report on U.S. poli-
tics that is somehow removed from the corrupting loyalties and bruising skirmishes of
everyday life and, therefore, able to provide a more impartial perspective. For some theo-
rists (e.g., Benson 2011; Pickard 2015), public service media offer a significant, if limited,
space for critical coverage, diverse voices, and independent journalism and are a neces-
sary counterweight to the failures of commercial journalism. For others (and this applies
to many of the writers referred to in previous paragraphs), public service can perform a
more enduring and trusted monitorial role, such as that of the “stranger” discussed by the
German social theorist Georg Simmel at the start of the twentieth century. These wander-
ing figures, for Simmel, have long played a vital role in how societies come to see them-
selves, precisely because of their ability to take a “birds-eye view” of the world around
them, something sadly missing from the silos and echo chambers that are said to dominate
the contemporary news and information environment (Pariser 2011).
Because he is not bound by roots to the particular constituents and partisan dispositions
of the group, he confronts all of these with a distinctly “objective” attitude, an attitude
that does not signify mere detachment and non-participation, but is a distinct structure
composed of remoteness and nearness, indifference and involvement. (Simmel [1908]
1971, 145)
Simmel insists that strangers are able, even with the harassment that many of them
faced, to exercise a kind of independence not available to what he calls “organically
connected persons.” The stranger
is the freer man, practically and theoretically; he examines conditions with less prejudice,
he assesses them against standards that are more general and more objective; and his
actions are not confined by custom, piety or precedent. (Simmel [1908] 1971, 146)
This is a powerful normative evocation of journalism as a fourth estate: news organi-
zations that are protected both from narrowly commercial considerations and partisan
affiliations and thus able to speak truth to power. Of course, most public service insti-
tutions are not “outsiders” in their own domains but, instead, quite the opposite: con-
stitutive forces of national identity and what it means to be an “insider.” They are not
strangers but primary definers of the territory in which “others” are designated and
recognized as strangers (Ahmed 2000). Far from being able to escape “custom, piety
or precedent,” public service broadcasters in particular are intimately tied to notions of
tradition, heritage, and boundary-making. So when it comes to “actually existing”
4 Television & New Media 00(0)
public service institutions such as the BBC, Simmel’s moving account of truth-telling
and fearlessness may not stand up to meaningful scrutiny.
Indeed, I argue in this article that the BBC, as the most important institutional
enactment of public service ideals, is perhaps the ultimate “insider” (at least in relation
to its “home” state) and, therefore, a very unreliable ally in the battle to deliver hard-
hitting journalism, to restore trust, and to resolve the journalism crisis. Far from retain-
ing its independence from all vested interests, and delivering a critical and robust
public interest journalism, the BBC is a compromised version of a potentially noble
ideal: far too implicated in and attached to existing elite networks of power to be able
to offer an effective challenge to them.
When offering this line of critique, I should make it clear that I have little sympathy
for the arguments of conservative critics of the BBC in Parliament, the press, and even
in its own midst. Consider Robin Aitken, a former BBC journalist, whose book on his
time in the newsroom berates the Corporation for being a hotbed of left-wing ideas and
a bastion of political correctness (Aitken 2007). The BBC, he claims,
Is passionately against racism, in favour of “human rights,” supportive of internationalism,
suspicious of traditional national identity and consequently strongly pro-EU; it is
feminist, secular and allergic to established authority in the form of the Crown, the courts,
the police or the churches. (Aitken 2007, 12–13)
The problem with this line of attack is not only how odd it would be if the BBC was
actively in favor of racism and opposed to “human rights” and internationalism (as if
those latter two were things to be ashamed of) but that these claims, as I shall show,
simply do not stand up to empirical analysis. Indeed, these arguments have long been
put forward as a means to weaken the BBC specifically to expand the space for com-
mercial provision inside the British media environment (Booth 2016; Green 1991).
Precisely because of these attacks, there is an understandable reluctance among pro-
gressives to criticize the BBC for fear that they may give ground to would-be privatiz-
ers. However, this need not mean ignoring significant problems underlying the BBC’s
news culture and organizational structures, and if we are to celebrate the principles
behind public provision of the media, then we also need an honest accounting of the
performance of actually existing public service institutions.
The article first explores normative definitions of public service media in more
detail and then considers some of the structural and institutional factors that shape the
BBC’s news output and that constrain its truth-telling potential.1 The article concludes
by urging citizens, in whatever country they are based, not to turn to an admirable but
flawed institutional model to rescue them from hypercommercial polarization or
authoritarian capture but to struggle for public media that are meaningfully indepen-
dent of all vested interests.
Normative Dimensions of Public Service Media
Public media—including one of their most historic embodiments, public service
broadcasting—stand in contradistinction to environments where the main concern is
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either to generate revenue for corporations or to generate publicity for governments.
They are a crucial example of the “corrective surgery” that is necessary to compensate
for the tendency of markets to underserve minority audiences and counter-hegemonic
perspectives, and for authoritarian regimes to neglect them entirely. Public service
media, argues Nicholas Garnham (1994, 8), are based on the rejection of “the market
definition of broadcasting as the delivery of a set of distinct commodities to consumers
rather than as the establishment of a communicative relationship.” They are designed
not to sell or propagandize but to facilitate public knowledge, meaningful dialogue,
and collective representation. In principle, they are “merit goods,” vital for democratic
interaction but unlikely to generate the revenue necessary to sustain their production
and, thus, in need of subsidies and support mechanisms that nevertheless do not com-
promise their independence. Public service media are the green vegetables that are
necessary to offset the impact of the sugary content that would otherwise pollute our
bodies and that have, as Paddy Scannell (1989, 136) once memorably put it, “unobtru-
sively contributed to the democratization of everyday life.”
Critical and comparative research seems to back up this democracy-enhancing
potential.2 Ramsey (2017) focuses on public service’s contribution to original content,
while Curran et al. (2009, 22) suggest that “the public service model of broadcasting
gives greater attention to public affairs and international news, and thereby fosters
greater knowledge in these areas, than the market model.” Other researchers claim that
public service media facilitate greater amounts of, for example, creative competition
(Padovani and Tracey 2003), source diversity (Tiffen et al. 2014), political engage-
ment (Baek 2009), and social trust (Schmitt-Beck and Wolsing 2010) than do their
commercial counterparts. There is, of course, following on from Hallin and Mancini
(2004), no uniform model of public service delivery or predetermined institutional
shape and, therefore, no standard measure of its contribution to democracy. This is a
crucial point for those seeking to democratize existing public service structures.
Yet there are also voices and organizations that argue that public service broadcast-
ing, even as currently organized, constitutes an unadulterated public good. Peter
Bazalgette, the chairman of the British commercial broadcaster ITV, has recently
described public service television news as generating “the trusted news that informs
our democracy in an era of widespread fakery, the original programmes that help
define our national culture, and the economic growth and international influence that
flow from our creative excellence” (Bazalgette 2017). UNESCO argues that public
service broadcasting systems, underpinned by editorial independence, accountability,
and transparency, can serve as a “cornerstone of democracy” (UNESCO 2008, 54),
while the European Broadcasting Union (EBU 2016) found that countries with a
strong public service media ethic had a higher degree of press freedom, increased
voter turnout in elections, less corruption, and even lower levels of right-wing extrem-
ism than those without a public service orientation.
It is, however, a myth to think that actually existing public service media, as
opposed to our normative conceptions of what they ought to be, are somehow auto-
matically able to stimulate cosmopolitan viewpoints and higher levels of knowledge
about the world, to act independently of elites, and to be accountable to their users.
6 Television & New Media 00(0)
Evidence shows that public media have, at different times and in different circum-
stances (Benson et al. 2017), offered a more insightful and rigorous oversight of politi-
cal culture than their commercial counterparts, and when they do so, they should be
applauded. However, not only does this speak more to the structural flaws of commer-
cial news systems rather than the intrinsic performance of public media, but it is also
highly contingent. Public service media can be just as intertwined—through funding
arrangements, elite capture, and modes of governance—with the specific configura-
tions of political power in their “home” states as commercial media. According to
Benson et al. (2017, 2), the undoubted democratic possibilities of public service media
are, at times, offset by the fact that “some publicly funded broadcasters are less than
civically optimal, producing content that uncritically reflects the views of those in
positions of power or that fails to attract audiences representative of the citizenry as a
whole.” The ability to realize the potential of public-ness depends on the extent to
which broadcasters are able, in reality, to extricate themselves from dependent rela-
tions and to offer meaningful scrutiny of established power.
For example, with reference to the EBU’s list of advantages that accrue from public
service media environments, empirical evidence suggests that they are an inconsistent
bulwark against right-wing extremism. In Germany, where the market share for public
service TV is some 43 percent, the far right AfD (Alternative for Germany) secured an
unprecedented 13 percent of the vote in the election in September 2017; the Netherlands,
where public television has a one-third audience share, also saw a vote of 13 percent
for the nationalist PVV (Party for Freedom); Marine Le Pen and her Front National
managed to attract a 34 percent share of the vote in May 2017 despite 30 percent of the
TV audience tuning into public television; finally, Austria, where public television has
a 35 percent audience share, nevertheless saw a vote of 46 percent for the Freedom
Party candidate in the presidential election of December 2016.3 Public service broad-
casters alone cannot guarantee low levels of right-wing extremism, not least because,
far from addressing the structural problems and political crises that are exploited by
far right parties, these broadcasters are often attacked by the far right who perceive
them to be part of a ruling and corrupt establishment—precisely as we have seen in
Germany (Schwartz 2016). Of course there are many variables behind the rise and fall
of the far right, but my point is that it is unrealistic to expect that public service media
will be able either naturally to transcend the tensions and polarization that mark their
wider political environment or to establish themselves as fully independent of power
elites wherever they exist.
The Structure and Performance of the BBC
What evidence is there to support this argument and what are some of the factors that
constrain the BBC’s ability to represent the whole of the country back to itself and to
hold power to account?
First, its governance structure has always been subject to political interference and
influence. Appointments to its most senior positions have long been effectively over-
seen by government ministers and reflect an overwhelming preference for top
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executives, civil servants, and generally what is described in the United Kingdom as
“the great and the good”—in other words those trusted by the Establishment to “hold
the line.” “In reality,” argues Mills (2016, 24),
the Corporation’s governors and trustees have been appointed by the leader and close
advisors of the current ruling party. By convention, they have been non-partisan
appointments, unable to interfere with programme making. But these appointees, most of
all the BBC chair, have often been highly politicised and interventionist.
For example, Rona Fairhead, the outgoing chair of the BBC’s former regulator, the
BBC Trust, was a nonexecutive chairman of HSBC holdings for many years and chair-
man and CEO of the Financial Times. Soon after leaving the BBC in 2017, the govern-
ment offered her a life peerage together with a role as an international development
minister. The incoming chair of the new BBC Board, Sir David Clementi, is a former
chairman of Prudential Insurance and actually got the job after the government invited
him to design a new governance framework—in other words, he wrote the rulebook of
which he was the first beneficiary. Five of the current fourteen-strong Board are gov-
ernment appointees—a figure that would have been far higher if not for the vigorous
opposition to the government’s initial plan to pack the Board with its own nominations
(Tran 2016). This is not the recipe for a truly independent governance structure.
Senior editorial appointments also reflect an underlying commitment to an aggres-
sive defense of the status quo. For example, the outgoing head of news, James Harding,
is a former journalist at the Financial Times and editor of The Times, part of the Rupert
Murdoch stable of newspapers, while its political editors in recent years—including
Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson, and Laura Kuenssberg—are (perhaps necessarily)
establishment “insiders,” loyal to the perpetuation of the “Westminster consensus,” a
distinctly British version of reporting from “inside the Beltway.” There is, in addition,
a long history of movement between the upper echelons of the BBC and the govern-
ments of all persuasions—a “revolving door” illustrated most recently by the journey
of Robbie Gibb from Conservative Central Office in the 1990s to top editorial posi-
tions at the BBC before departing in July 2017 to be prime minister Theresa May’s
head of communications (R. Mason 2017). “The circulation of such figures back and
forth between the BBC and pro-business factions in both major parties mirrors, at a
lower level, the circulation of elites at the apex of the BBC hierarchy, which has been
a feature of the BBC since its establishment” (Mills 2016, 139).
Second, its funding arrangements also prescribe against transparency given that the
level of the license fee (itself a highly regressive form of taxation in that it is a flat fee)
is set in secret discussions between the Treasury and the director general, a situation
that has always laid open the possibility of political intervention and influence. This is
precisely what occurred in the 2015 settlement when the government forced the BBC
to absorb the enormous cost of providing free television licenses for the over-seventy-
fives as part of the Conservative government’s broader welfare agenda, in return for a
small rise in income for the Corporation (Martinson and Plunkett 2015). Ordinary
members of the public may pay for the BBC, but it is the government that effectively
8 Television & New Media 00(0)
sets the terms of debate and is able to use license fee negotiations as a lever with which
to extract certain forms of behavior from the BBC.
Third, the BBC has always recruited from the most privileged sections of the popu-
lation. A 2014 report on social mobility found that one-third of BBC executives came
from Oxford and Cambridge alone in contrast to 0.08 percent of the U.K. population,
while 26 percent went to private school in contrast to 7 percent of the general popula-
tion (Social Mobility and Childhood Poverty Commission 2014, 206). This applies
even to top “talent” where 45 percent were privately educated and where the numbers
of people who went to a nonselective high school could, according to one press report,
be counted “on one hand” (Bulman 2017). Research carried out for the BBC found
that 61 percent of all employees had parents from “higher managerial position and
professional occupations,” roughly double the national average, leading to the
Corporation’s decision to remove details of educational backgrounds from the recruit-
ment process (Ruddick 2017).
The BBC’s record in terms of its recruitment and representation of women and the
minority ethnic population is also a cause for concern. In 2017, as required by the
government, the BBC revealed the salaries of its highest paid stars. The fuss in the end
was less about the amount that was paid out at the very top than to the fact that none
of its highest earners were women or people of color. This was followed in January
2018 by the dramatic resignation of Carrie Gracie, the BBC’s China editor, protesting
against the existence of what she described as a “secretive and illegal” pay culture that
systematically discriminated against women (Ruddick and Slawson 2018).
Additionally, while 13 percent of its workforce comes from a black and minority eth-
nic background, in contrast to 14 percent of the general population, minorities make
up only 6 percent of senior management positions (Ofcom 2017, 18) and are likely to
be overrepresented in some of the lowest paid jobs in cleaning and catering. True, the
BBC is not necessarily worse than some of its commercial rivals, but the idea that a
public service broadcaster would automatically address ingrained structural dispari-
ties is a fantasy.
These practices are likely to affect the ways in which the BBC is received by par-
ticular audiences. While loyalty to and trust in BBC services are much higher than
those of their commercial rivals (BBC 2017, 15), the numbers are far more complex
when it comes to thinking about the ways in which the needs of specific groups are
met. So, for example, the wealthiest audiences are significantly more likely to praise
the BBC’s performance with some 63 percent of the wealthiest households reporting
that the Corporation offers them at least “quite a bit” of what they need compared with
only 47 percent of the poorest households (ICM Unlimited 2016, 22). There are also
regional and ethnic disparities in terms of audience satisfaction: while 72 percent of
Londoners feel adequately represented by BBC news output, only 52 percent of those
in the South and South East and 50 percent of those in the North East and Cumbria feel
the same way (ICM Unlimited 2016, 41); 45 percent of minorities agree that “the BBC
is good at representing my ethnic group,” a figure that drops to 43 percent for black
audiences, albeit a dramatic increase from 2014 when the figure stood at a mere 32
Freedman 9
percent (ICM Unlimited 2016, 44). The BBC, in other words, reflects rather than tran-
scends the underlying inequalities of the political geography of the United Kingdom.
These institutional factors also have important consequences for the actual content
of news coverage. While the BBC claims scrupulously to adhere to its obligation to
respect “due impartiality,” this is a conception of newsroom behavior that deliberately
bows down to a prevailing neoliberal consensus organized around notions of what is
considered in elite circles to constitute a desirable “middle ground” (P. Mason 2017).
This refers to the celebrated “conventional wisdom of the day,” a phrase used by Nick
Robinson, formerly the BBC’s chief political correspondent and still one of its leading
broadcasters, to describe a narrow set of ideas about, for example, economics, immi-
gration, and foreign policy that helps to ground its coverage (N. Robinson 2017).
Thus, views that run counter to a market sensibility and that would have been part of
a mainstream critical standpoint twenty years ago have gradually come to be seen as
eccentric, marginal, and unrealistic—although, of course, the growing popularity of
the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on precisely such a platform is likely to put pressure
on this conception of the “middle ground.”
The point, however, is that “impartiality,” while for some an admirable professional
objective, is also a way in which, in recent years, a market consensus has come to be
normalized, legitimized, and seen to be effectively inevitable. As Owen Jones has
argued, “the BBC is a perfect vehicle for the Establishment, as it allows the free-mar-
ket status quo to be portrayed as a neutral, apolitical stance” (Jones 2014, 120) when
it is instead a deliberate political choice. The BBC does not have the shrill, overt bias
of, for example, U.S. cable news channels but quietly and paternalistically presides
over and protects a “centre ground,” partly of its own making, which is being chal-
lenged both from left and right. Political centrists may argue that this is precisely what
is needed to reconcile warring factions in polarized political environments. There is,
however, another argument: that a public service broadcaster needs constantly to inter-
rogate what is meant by the “conventional wisdom of the day,” to distance itself from
routinely reproducing an artificial consensus and, indeed, not to pretend that a consen-
sus is always desirable or possible. These are the lessons of its “risk-averse” approach,
which was revealed in the BBC’s coverage of the Scottish Independence referendum,
Brexit, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
This is not to argue that there is no space at all for lively debates on the BBC. At
times, it produces content, such as its coverage of the Suez Crisis in 1956 or its criti-
cism of Tony Blair’s drive to war in Iraq in 2003, which is widely seen as uncomfort-
able for the sitting government and, therefore, celebrated as evidence of its ability to
act independently. However, the parameters of these disagreements are extremely lim-
ited and reflect situations in which there are already tensions at the highest levels of
government. Far from these occasions demonstrating the limitless independence of the
Corporation, they reveal instead the extent to which the BBC is an important vehicle
for capturing disagreements that percolate down from establishment sources. Tom
Mills argues that the idea that the BBC’s coverage of Suez was in any way systemati-
cally antigovernment is simply fanciful and that, in the case of the build-up to the
invasion of Iraq in 2003, this was “not a straightforward struggle between an
10 Television & New Media 00(0)
‘independent’ broadcaster and a bullying government, but rather as the most visible
part of something of an imbroglio among the British elite” (Mills 2016, 104).
A number of recent academic studies reveal that while the BBC may be far from
monolithic in its reproduction of elite power, it still fails adequately to represent mar-
ginalized voices and to highlight the more “unconventional” wisdoms of the day, such
as the antiwar case in relation to the invasion of Iraq, antiausterity voices during and
after the 2008 financial crash, and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour
For example, despite claims that the BBC was “far ahead” of its rivals in challeng-
ing the British government’s drive to war in Iraq (Benson et al. 2017, 1), comprehen-
sive analyses of coverage show this not to be the case. Justin Lewis (2003) argues that
the BBC had the most pro-war content of all TV channels, that it used twice the pro-
portion of government sources, and that it was less likely than the other channels to
report on Iraqi casualties. Despite repeated criticisms from government, the BBC “was
often the channel least likely to engage in ‘whingeing and whining’” about the govern-
ment’s case for war. Similarly, in their study of media coverage of the invasion of Iraq,
Piers Robinson et al. (2010, 86) conclude that “whereas the BBC was the focal point
for government anger, it was actually Channel 4 that adopted the more critical stance
toward the war.”
Researchers at Cardiff University conducted a major content analysis of BBC cov-
erage of business in 2007 and 2012, which discovered that business voices receive
substantially more airtime on BBC network news than do its rivals. In relation to cov-
erage of bank bailouts in 2008, “opinion was almost completely dominated by stock-
brokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society
voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance
sector were almost completely absent from coverage” (Berry 2013). More recent anal-
ysis of the coverage of the deficit debate in 2009 found a similar lack of space on the
BBC “available to Keynesian or heterodox economists, academics, labor unions or
other representatives of civil society who might have advocated countercyclical or
anti-austerity policies” (Berry 2016, 850).
Justin Schlosberg (2016) assessed coverage by the main TV news bulletins of the
leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and concluded that BBC evening news bulletins gave
nearly twice as much airtime to critics of the Labour leader than to his supporters dur-
ing a critical period in 2016. This was in stark contrast to the more balanced approach
taken by ITN, its main rival. Schlosberg also looked at the language used in the bul-
letins and found that “the Labour leadership and its supporters were persistently talked
about in terms that emphasised hostility, intransigence and extreme positions”
(Schlosberg 2016, 4), a perspective that appeared out of step with the BBC’s own
editorial guidelines.
Even in its mobilization of “facts,” the Corporation seems far more prepared to
draw on sources closest to power. For example, Cushion et al. (2017, 11) examined the
use by the BBC of statistics in the run-up to the Brexit campaign and found that “sta-
tistical claims that routinely feature in the news appear to reinforce rather than chal-
lenge the institutional voices that have traditionally dominated broadcast programming
Freedman 11
and shaped pubic debates” (italics in original). They also found that of the statistics
generated by political parties, some 83 percent of all those used came from one party
alone, the ruling Conservatives (Cushion et al. 2017, 12). The authors argue that this
is not evidence of a systematic bias toward the Conservatives per se but rather toward
the authority of government—whichever government happens to be in power.
So in some of the key issues of the day, the BBC marginalized those voices that
were not part of the established consensus and normalized those closest to official
sources. It may have been “impartial” when debating issues within a narrow window
of elite disagreement but was far more partial about debates it judged not to be reflec-
tive of the “mainstream.” Far from being a hotbed of liberal dissent as Robin Aitken
suggested earlier, the Cardiff researchers concluded back in 2013 that the BBC “tends
to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-
wing, anti-business agenda” (Berry 2013).
There is a term to describe high levels of entanglement between state and media where
the former uses funding, advertising, and direct or indirect subsidies to manage and
control the latter: media capture (Schiffrin 2017). This is a form of soft power rather
than crude or coercive pressure that is placed on media to guide them into submissive
coverage of the state’s affairs. In recent literature, as I mentioned at the start of this
article, this is seen as directly relevant to media environments in places such as Latin
America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Indeed, very often, as I noted, it is
precisely the public service model and, in particular the reputation of the BBC, that is
held up as an answer to the insidious and antidemocratic consequences of “capturing”
states and “captive” media. Yet, as I have tried to show, this is a frame that is just as
relevant to the United Kingdom given just how hard it is for the BBC to remain mean-
ingfully independent either of the governments who surround it or of the establishment
from which it draws in senior personnel and its “conventional wisdom.”
Of course, it is far from a stable and predictable relationship, but it is nevertheless
a very close one. The Guardian journalist Charlotte Higgins (2015, 147) describes the
relationship between the BBC and government in terms of a “curious dance” and a
“delicate waltz.” I believe that what is required is a more aggressive step in which each
party stands their ground—perhaps something like capoeira. Yet this is unlikely to
happen given the long-standing administrative and political connections between the
two partners—a relationship full of unspoken assumptions, bureaucratic procedures,
and stubborn hierarchies that help define and police a “centre ground” that, despite (or
because of) the occasional flare-ups between government and broadcaster, works for
the long-term interests of the establishment.
James Curran has famously argued that the abolition of the “taxes on knowledge”
and the commercialization of the British press in the mid-nineteenth century “did not
inaugurate a new era of press freedom” (Curran 2002, 81) but of corporate control.
Perhaps the same argument can be made in relation to public service broadcasting in
the United Kingdom. The creation of the BBC has certainly inhibited and countered
12 Television & New Media 00(0)
prospects for a wholly commercial media system in the United Kingdom, but it seems
to have replaced one form of social control, based on market forces, with another that
is based on state patronage and elite consensus. Public service has come to be as effec-
tive a form of regulating public discourse as market forces were in the second half of
the nineteenth century.
Why does this matter? It matters for audiences in the United Kingdom because
the BBC, through its domestic news output, has been a key institutional mechanism
for reinforcing in recent years a particular form of “common sense”: that the United
Kingdom’s foreign policy interventions are necessarily legitimate despite the odd
mistake, that neoclassical assumptions provided for a rational and rewarding eco-
nomic system despite the odd hiccup and crash, and that opposition to austerity is
the domain of “militants” and the “hard left” even though their arguments would
have been widely accepted forty years ago. This is done in calming tones and with a
well-established voice of authority, but it nevertheless represents the strategic inter-
ests of powerful elites far more than it does the disparate and messy views of domes-
tic audiences.
It matters to audiences outside the United Kingdom for two reasons. First, it
reminds us that if we want comprehensively to address the issues that matter in any
country, then neither a journalism that is based on ratings alone nor one that is
allowed to nurture the “conventional wisdom of the day” will be enough. Indeed, it
appears to be the case that by not taking seriously the grievances of voices that lie
outside of this consensus and by continuing to operate within a narrow and comfort-
able “centre ground” even while that center ground is under siege from other forces,
mainstream journalism can find itself in the position of being increasingly irrelevant
to citizens’ concerns. Second, it suggests that while we might want to draw inspira-
tion from the ideals of “public service” when confronting existing journalism crises
and designing potential solutions, we need to remain attentive to the gaps between
individual examples of public service media and the democratic principles that ani-
mate them.
The vision of a truly public media—one that is genuinely accountable to and repre-
sentative of publics and that scrutinizes elites rather than deferring to them—remains
as relevant as ever. The problem is that actually existing public media, including the
BBC, have been severely constricted in their ability to realize these ambitions. We
need instead to look at ways in which we can stimulate independent public media
provision that fits specific configurations of power in different contexts. For example,
in some countries, it may be possible to fund new and diverse sources of public interest
journalism from the revenue generated by spectrum sales or cross-subsidies from digi-
tal intermediaries and other revenue-rich organizations (see Pickard 2015); in others,
we will need to struggle for constitutional guarantees for transparency and indepen-
dence. In all places, however, we will surely need active and resourceful “media
movements” (Segura and Waisbord 2016) to secure distinctly public forms of com-
munication that are independent of both state and market. If we are to conceive of
communication landscapes that are not controlled by billionaires or bureaucrats, poli-
ticians or moguls, then we ought not to limit our imagination to the structure and
Freedman 13
performance of a single flawed and compromised institution, no matter how admirable
its reputation, but to recreate new models from the ground up.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. The article focuses on the BBC’s news provision as distinct from the many other services
and content provided by the Corporation, because of its central contribution to the politi-
cal culture of the United Kingdom. This reflects current regulatory debates on pluralism
where, according to Ofcom, “news and current affairs play the primary role” in delivering
public policy goals concerning the democratic role of the media (Ofcom 2012, 9). It is also
by far the contested policy area. The article also focuses on the BBC’s domestic content, as
opposed to its international services, because that is, after all, its central remit, where the
vast majority of its resources are concentrated, and where the key ideological battles take
place. That would be the case for anyone who wants to copy the BBC model: domestic, not
international, services are likely to be the key legitimating forces. Indeed, it is a testimony
to the BBC’s reputation that its World Service operation appears not to have the same rela-
tionship to “soft power” as Voice of America, Russia Today, or the China Global Television
Network, all of which are more regularly understood in relation to the foreign policy objec-
tives of the host government. This is despite the fact that the biggest expansion of the World
Service since the 1940s—with some eleven new language services due to come online by
2018—was funded by the U.K. government and announced in its 2015 Strategic Defence
and Security Review, a fairly explicit link to the United Kingdom’s strategic interests.
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Author Biography
Des Freedman is a professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of
London. He is the author of “The Contradictions of Media Power” (2014), “The Politics of
Media Policy” (2008), and (with James Curran and Natalie Fenton) Misunderstanding the
Internet (2nd edition, 2016). He was a founding member of the Media Reform Coalition and
project lead for the 2016 Puttnam Inquiry into the future of public service television.
... Although that law was repealed in 1987, the professional practice continued to function according to those criteria. In Europe, on the contrary, it was considered that this quality would be guaranteed by the public television service, although what quality consisted of was not defined (Freedman, 2019). However, many of the current practices do not show that public televisions are guarantors of such quality. ...
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En una época marcada por la desinformación, el cumplimiento de los estándares profesionales por parte de los medios de comunicación es una de las vías para recuperar la confianza del público en las noticias. El objetivo de este artículo es evaluar críticamente el método empleado para elaborar un Sello de Calidad que permita distinguir los medios por la confianza que generan en sus audiencias. Tras una revisión de la literatura, se han identificado las dimensiones e indicadores que hacen que un informativo de televisión pueda ser percibido como de calidad. Para confirmar que las categorías e indicadores eran pertinentes para la industria europea, se aplicó el método Delphi y se consultó a más de 200 expertos en España, Italia y Alemania, pertenecientes a diferentes grupos de interés del sector (académicos, anunciantes, representantes de la audiencia, reguladores, periodistas, ONGs y ejecutivos de medios). De las tres categorías asociadas a la calidad de los productos informativos (relativos a los editores, a los profesionales y a la elaboración de los contenidos), los entrevistados consideran que la existencia de procedimientos adecuados para elaborar las noticias, profesionales cualificados y con recursos son los más importantes. Aunque existen algunas diferencias en las percepciones sobre la calidad informativa entre los diversos 'stakeholders' y según su nacionalidad, la necesidad de una acreditación externa que reconozca el buen trabajo periodístico y asegure que el producto informativo reúne los cánones de calidad exigibles de las buenas prácticas profesionales permanece como un requisito para unos medios de comunicación al servicio de la sociedad democrática.
... Meanwhile, academics from different disciplines theorized and categorized a consistent body of knowledge within the journalistic field (Deuze and Witschge, 2018). The pressure on professional journalism has increased as both the political right wing and the left wing accuse the media of malpractice (Freedman, 2019). The debate on the future of journalism is taking place in an era of digital media and economic uncertainty (Franklin, 2014). ...
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The influence of social and technological factors —from the shadow of disinformation to automation and emerging forms of journalism— redefines the role of journalism and its practices. Journalistic metamorphosis has not been traumatic, but it has been complex, leading to tensions, reflections and controversies. The challenges facing journalism during the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 are assessed with a focus on Spain. The research consists of a survey of 197 Spanish journalists and nine interviews with prestigious academics and internationally recognized professionals. Changes within journalism are addressed in five major themes: the role of journalism today; the relationship between journalism and politics; the incidence of bots and artificial intelligence; mobile journalism and social media; and emerging forms of journalism. The results show that the role of journalism remains unchanged, but the pandemic has strengthened some of its functions. The influence of politics in journalism is very prominent, as well as the concern about automation and misinformation. To face the future, high specialization is needed due to the fast technological evolution and the emergence of new techniques. * This work was supported by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities (Government of Spain) and the ERDF structural fund within the research project “Digital native media in Spain: Storytelling formats and mobile strategy” (RTI2018-093346-B-C33).
... The competition for the scarce time of media users has been specifically affecting attempts to reach young audiences, not in the least because they engage more with social media, other new types of media content such as vlogs and international VOD platforms. On top of that, PSM struggle with connecting to increasingly polarized societies (Donders 2021), in which legacy 'mainstream' media themselves have become a new battlefield, with lower percentages of people trusting news, not in the least because of the explosion of disinformation (Freedman 2019). PSM sceptics have accused them for over-emphasizing urban, young, progressive voices and insufficiently capturing the broad diversity of opinions (Barwise 2002). ...
This article assesses the viability of RTÉ, Ireland’s main public service media (PSM) organization, as an institution and media organization against the backdrop of the largest challenges affecting PSM today. It questions the extent (1) the presence of global platforms, (2) shifting media use and (3) (continued) government support have affected the programming, structure and legitimacy of the Irish public broadcaster. The analytical framework that serves as the basis for our analysis combines a media policy and political economy approach with cultural-sociological analysis. Using expert interviews and document analysis, we show that many of the challenges of RTÉ are generalizable in a European context and a wider international context. We argue that while the government may not be directly undermining RTÉ, its funding position may become so eroded that it would no longer be able to deliver what one of our interviewees describes as a ‘BBC-sized mission in a small jurisdiction’.
... This initiative is a very innovative example of social journalism. Part of a traditional media company, with a strong tradition in both innovation and responsibility (Freedman, 2019), the mission of BBC Media Action is the production and maximisation of impact aiming to contribute to "a world where informed and empowered people live in healthy, resilient and inclusive communities" (, n.d.). According to the organisation's mission statement: "With our partners we reach millions through creative communication and trusted media, helping people have their say, understand their rights, responsibilities and each other, and take action to transform their own lives" ( ...
Various monitoring and audience analysis tools function as practical means for media professionals to benefit from surveillance. This chapter argues algorithms’ role in amplifying the existing economic and power relations inequalities of search engines and digital platforms. Moreover, this chapter discusses that audience analytics and search engine optimisation (SEO) in mainstream media’s editorial processes ensure the recirculation of content created or managed by influential content producers. From this point forth, this chapter has two primary aims: (1) to analyse the role of audience monitoring and algorithmic applications in digital newsrooms, (2) to investigate how the SEO specialists working for news outlets take advantage of SEO and audience monitoring in editorial processes.This chapter uses qualitative analysis to gain insights into digital newsrooms. A purposive sample comprises the websites of Sabah, Milliyet, Sözcü, NTV, and, and in-depth interviews with SEO specialists working in selected media organisations were conducted. The findings showed that the journalistic content is converted into advertising revenue employing SEO and algorithms through processed user data. The results affirm the association between digital monitoring technologies, data monetisation, and the realisation of economic interests through journalistic practice.
The growing popularity of subscription video-on-demand services (SVoDs) has transformed the European media landscape, re-shaped consumption habits, fragmented audiences and made it more difficult for public service media (PSM) organizations to engage especially younger audiences. This article analyses challenges, such as competing against the immense commissioning power of SVoDs, faced by PSM. Focusing particularly on the UK experience, it highlights how, despite the growing prevalence and popularity of SVoDs and their role in promoting wider circulation for material drawn from a variety of international sources, PSM organizations are still recognized by audiences and by television programme-makers as being pivotal to provision of certain sorts of quintessentially local content. As this article argues, the rise of global streamers has both accentuated and altered the ways in which PSM deliver public value, effectively re-positioning PSM as elements of what might be seen as critical media infrastructure.
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Nad losem brytyjskiego nadawcy publicznego dyskusje prowadzone są niemal od początku powołania tej instytucji do życia, tj. od 1922 r. Pierwsze rozwa-żania i debaty dotyczyły jednak nie tyle zasadności istnienia BBC, wówczas British Broadcasting Company, ile ogólnych warunków i zasad, na jakich opierać miała się działalność nadawcy. O przyszłości instytucji i jej publicznym charakterze zadecy-dowały powołane wówczas specjalne gremia, których zadaniem była ocena sytu-acji i wypracowanie zaleceń doskonalących stan audiowizualnych środków przekazu w Wielkiej Brytanii (Adamowski, 2006, s. 195). Dodatkowym niezwykle istotnym czynnikiem była postawa samych pracowników BBC oraz jej pierwszego dyrektora generalnego Johna Reitha promująca, podczas trwającego w 1926 r. strajku, wizję instytucji publicznej, niezależnej tak od sektora prywatnego, jak i rządowych naci-sków. W efekcie od 1 stycznia 1927 r. w oparciu o tzw. Kartę Królewską powołano do życia korporację publiczną British Broadcasting Corporation (s. 197-198). W kolejnych latach obradujące komitety i komisje rozważały między innymi kwestie zasadności utrzymania monopolu instytucji, warunków organizacji i kon-troli oraz zasad nansowania działalności. Obradowały też nad samą ideą służ-by publicznej i właściwością traktowania BBC jako paternalistycznego narzędzia elit, kształtującego postawy i zachowania brytyjskiego społeczeństwa (Booth, 2020, s. 324-327). Zakres tematów poddawanych publicznej dyskusji nie ulegał zasadniczym zmianom również w kolejnych dekadach. Szczególnym okresem in-tensy kacji debat poświęconych publicznemu nadawcy był i jest czas poprzedza-jący odnowienie Królewskiej Karty. Według niektórych obserwatorów i badaczy, w pewnym sensie cykliczne podważanie dotychczasowego porządku i fundamen-tów, na których opiera się działalność BBC, jest zjawiskiem naturalnym i pożą-danym, stymulującym wręcz-zarówno samą instytucję medialną, jak również
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Este comentário reflete sobre as condições reais para uma política democrática e o que isso significa para os estudos dos media e da comunicação quando tentamos dar sentido às estruturas e à natureza da comunicação, às condições das democracias em todo o mundo e às possibilidades de mudança social em tempos de crise. Para tal, será necessário que nos concentremos nas relações de poder – quer no exercício de poder como domínio, quer no potencial do poder constitutivo dos sujeitos enquanto agentes livres. O poder enquanto domínio leva-nos a interrogar a imbricação estrutural das injustiças num contexto social, político e económico mais amplo, a fim de compreender o que poderia ser feito não só para desestabilizar o poder, mas também para desmantelar injustiças.
As the past year we are facing global health crisis, the need for more social responsive media is growing bigger. Following up a research on media responsibility conducted in 2010 (Tsene, From Media Crisis to Media Responsibility: A New Model of Social Responsibility. Aiora, 2012) where social media culture is related to traditional social responsibility values, we explore whether solutions journalism could suggest a responsibility operational model for contemporary media. We select case studies from both bigger news organisations and uprising media startups, and we analyse them under the scope of Curry and Hammonds (The Power of Solutions Journalism. Center for Media Engagement., 2014) hypothesis that solutions journalism could be another tool for newsrooms in order to regain trust and at the same time to confront current challenges and concerns. We also examine their business models, the level of engagement with the communities they serve and their long-term impact on them in an attempt to highlight similarities and differences. From our analysis we could conclude that they all put in the heart of journalistic interest the citizens and the most marginalised communities, they all try to be responsive to the needs of those different communities and audiences, and they all focus on narrating stories, which normally would not make it to news headlines and that could actually have an important impact, while at the same time they all try to experiment with different business models that will allow them to be more transparent and independent.
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Public media's contributions to democracy are well established. Less widely known are the specific policies that make these contributions possible. This study finds that professional autonomy and civic accountability in public media are supported by (1) funding established for multiyear periods; (2) legal charters that restrict partisan government influence while also mandating the provision of diverse, high-quality programming; (3) oversight agencies, whose " arm's length " independence from the government in power is bolstered through staggered terms and the dispersal of authority to make appointments; and (4) audience councils and surveys designed to strengthen links to diverse publics. Public media governed by policies that continue and extend, rather than depart from, these best practices will likely be the most successful in maintaining their civic mission online.
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The use of data is often viewed as a potentially powerful democratic force in journalism, promoting the flow of information sources and enriching debates in the public sphere. We explore a key feature of the relationship between data and journalism, drawing upon the largest ever study of statistical references in news reporting (N = 4285) commissioned by the BBC Trust to examine how statistics inform coverage in a wide range of UK television, radio and online media (N = 6916). Overall, our study provides a cautionary tale about the use of data to enlighten democratic debate. While we found that statistics were often referenced in news coverage, their role in storytelling was often vague, patchy and imprecise. Political and business elites were the main actors referencing statistics and interpreting them, but many of their claims were neither questioned nor interrogated further by journalists, with statistics often traded by opposing sides of an argument without independent analysis. In order to enhance the independent scrutiny of statistics, we argue a radical shift in newsgathering and journalistic interpretation is needed, which allows reporters to draw on a wider range of statistical sources and to adopt more critical judgements based on the weight of statistical evidence.
The commercial public service broadcasters (PSBs) in the United Kingdom (UK) make a significant contribution to the country’s public service television system, alongside the BBC. Operating under the UK communications regulator Ofcom, the commercial PSB channels ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 are required to broadcast varying levels of public service content. This places these channels in a different category to all other market broadcasters in the UK. By taking a critical political economy of communication approach, this article examines how the regulatory system functions to secure public service provision in television. A particular focus is placed on the first-run originations quotas, which govern the levels of programming that are originally produced or commissioned by a commercial PSB, and broadcast for the first time in the UK. It is argued that while fulfilling the public service remit, the commercial PSBs gain significant benefits that contribute to the underpinning of their business models.
Building on a survey of media institutions in eighteen West European and North American democracies, Hallin and Mancini identify the principal dimensions of variation in media systems and the political variables which have shaped their evolution. They go on to identify three major models of media system development (the Polarized Pluralist, Democratic Corporatist and Liberal models) to explain why the media have played a different role in politics in each of these systems, and to explore the forces of change that are currently transforming them. It provides a key theoretical statement about the relation between media and political systems, a key statement about the methodology of comparative analysis in political communication and a clear overview of the variety of media institutions that have developed in the West, understood within their political and historical context.
This article examines how BBC News at Ten covered the emergence of the UK public deficit debate in 2009. A total of 25 days of coverage drawn from the first seven months of 2009 were subject to a source and thematic content analysis to examine how news bulletins explained the emergence, consequences and possible solutions to the rise in the public deficit. Results indicated that political and financial elites dominated coverage. The consequence was that the news reproduced a very limited range of opinion on the implications and potential strategies for deficit reduction. The view that Britain was in danger of being abandoned by its international creditors with serious economic consequences was unchallenged and repeatedly endorsed by journalists. Despite their limited record of success during recessions, austerity policies dominated discussion of possible solutions to the rise in the deficit. This research thus raises questions about impartiality and the watchdog role of public service journalism.
How did the American media system become what it is today? Why do American media have so few public interest regulations compared with other democratic nations? How did the system become dominated by a few corporations, and why are structural problems like market failures routinely avoided in media policy discourse? By tracing the answers to many of these questions back to media policy battles in the 1940s, this book explains how this happened and why it matters today. Drawing from extensive archival research, the book uncovers the American media system’s historical roots and normative foundations. It charts the rise and fall of a forgotten media reform movement to recover alternatives and paths not taken. As much about the present and future as it is about the past, the book proposes policies for remaking media based on democratic values for the digital age.