Why television is good for us

Volume 32, Number 1, March 2021

Peter Bazalgette

As the future of broadcasting is questioned again, we should remember all the benefits brought by quality programming

Our debate about public service broadcasting (PSB) has not been good enough. We prefer old certainties to new realities. Sometimes, it’s as though we’re talking about preserving some cherished piece of heritage, like trying to save a venerable stately home. I want to make a forceful argument for PSB, but solely in how it meets the challenges of the 21st Century. That is the debate we should now be having.

First, what is PSB? It’s a contract with broadcasters to deliver a public good. What is that public good? Well, it’s best defined by its key elements: democratic, cultural, economic. Let’s just unpack those:

DEMOCRATIC: the well-resourced provision of trusted and reliable news, produced by trained and ethical journalists. A functioning democracy depends on an informed citizenry.

CULTURAL: that’s cultural in its broadest sense – identity, shared values, our national conversation. This comes from programmes made by us, about us and for us.

ECONOMIC: our screen industries are a cornerstone of our creative industries. The PSB companies have a special role here: they’re required to be investors in nations and regions outside the south east, and to support independent production. They also nurture new talent.

Now we need to reinterpret these qualities to match the age we’re living in – an industrial revolution more dramatic than that of the 19th Century, and one that is disrupting our democracy, our culture and our economy. Even the name – public service broadcasting – seems otiose. Why would you define it by its method of distribution? And how relevant is that word broadcast anyway, when much is now narrowcast, one-to-one? The best replacement I’ve come up with so far is critical social content, or CSC. You can probably do better, but we do need a rebrand here.

There are five compelling reasons for nurturing critical social content, for the benefit of our society. They come out of the key elements I’ve just talked about: trusted and reliable news, content that promotes and develops our shared values, national resilience, the furthering of the creative industries, and the nurturing of Britain’s “soft power abroad”.

The most important of these is news. We’re just 20 years into the internet age. We’re still discovering what it means. It’s brought us many benefits: new industries, untold access to data and information, connections to people we’d never have otherwise met, a cornucopia of entertainment, and so on. But it also represents a threat to civil society. It’s a promoted anarchy. It’s the home of rumour, gossip and paranoia. The handful of supranational monopolies which dominate our access to the web rely on algorithms which connect us to what they think we’ll like or agree with. This has made confirmation bias into a sort of religion.

In the midst of this Tower of Babel, is a group of trained journalists charged with making impartial news, featuring a broad range of ideas and opinions, more or less relevant than before? Television and radio news may not be perfect, or perfectly impartial. But they strain every sinew to deliver high quality national and regional news according to those standards.

And are held to account for it by Ofcom. Beyond the PSB services, Sky News performs a valuable role as well. Indeed, I’d argue one begat the other. This is different to newspapers, which play a valid and largely responsible role by also investing in journalism but presenting a spectrum of slants for us to choose from (their business models are also more challenged than those of television).

Some now question whether we should still enshrine impartial news in our system. It’s healthy to challenge, of course. Let me answer the point with a morality tale from across the water.

First, of course we’re well aware how the excesses of Fox News helped create the Trump phenomenon. How it fed tropes about the likes of George Soros and Barrack “Hussein” Obama. How it helped make millions of people angry. And I’ve been shocked, coming back to CNN recently, how polemical it’s also become, as an anti-Trump channel (witness its anchor, Anderson Cooper, dubbing Trump and his baseless allegations of electoral fraud as “an obese turtle on its back, flailing in the sun”).

When Fox News – the part still presented by functioning journalists rather than shock jocks – decided to cut away from a Trump speech, falsely claiming victory, it was rewarded by street demonstrations with placards denouncing it as “Fox News Fake News!”. In this looking glass world… this was for when Fox tried to tell the truth!

Let’s remember that the US government’s own Department of Homeland Security declared that the election was the most secure ever and that there was no evidence that any voting systems were compromised. We know what’s at stake here: destroy confidence in a democracy and you may wound it forever. But then, TV is not where the real problems are coming from. It’s our old friend, the internet.

This was the election when a congresswoman was elected who openly espoused the QAnon conspiracy (Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia). The idea of a satanic cult of paedophiles in Washington mobilising against Trump, originally from the basement of a pizzeria, is the malignant progeny of Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube. These social media platforms may have belatedly, not very effectively, started trying to qualify this terrible stuff. But there it still is.

Toxic tweets move to Parker and Rumble

It was on Facebook that Carl Higbie released a NewsMax video debunking the election result with a litany of false claims. It was on YouTube that the One America News Network declared a Trump victory. It was on Twitter that Trump kept up his daily drumbeat of lies, including a false conspiracy theory about voting machines, first floated by QAnon. The platforms may have tried to label some of this stuff, but they still distributed it. Barack Obama has called this “truth decay”.

But now, as the big internet players start to behave as publishers rather than the no-responsibility distributors they always claimed they were, the really toxic stuff is moving to other unmediated internet players. Parler and Rumble have gained millions of followers. They’ve created a world in which Trump won, and probably, who knows, becomes president for life. We can’t ignore it. Surveys indicated that 20 per cent of the US population believe

Trump really won… that’s tens of millions of citizens. And as liberal democracies rightly move to try to regulate the internet, we hope they’re good at whack-a-mole.

Which brings me back to the critical social content of public service: impartial news. Peddling lies and “alternative facts” is cheap. Verifying and reporting actual facts is expensive. But more than ever, there has to be trust and reliability… news programmes and online sites to which anyone can go find the facts checked dispassionately. This is why we’re promoting ITV News as “filtered for no one”.

It’s not Russia or China I’ve been talking about. It’s not Hungary, Poland or Turkey (though we should be worried about all of them). It’s the United States of America. The internet age has placed us on a precipice, and we had better shore up the essential foundations of our democracy.

So, of the five contemporary justifications for a PSB system in the 21st Century, news is the first. The second is content, which is made by us, for us and about us. Today, we are blessed with the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney+ offering us a wonderful range of streamed entertainment. Most of it is international, and none the worse for that. Severed bodies on Scandi bridges, drugs production in the New Mexico desert, and alcoholic chess prodigies certainly have their place. But our current PSB system funds £2.6billion of UK original production a year. It’s the news. It’s the documentaries and reality shows. And it’s the soap operas. If I just think of ITV’s two soaps: you’ll find storylines about sexual grooming, miscarriage, Muslim homosexuality, gay adoption, multiple sclerosis… and that’s just in Coronation Street. And there are plots with dementia, breast cancer, Down’s Syndrome abortion, child abuse in the family, acid attacks… all in Emmerdale. This domestic content is one of the ways through which we explore who we are as a nation.

Likewise, this has been the year of Black Lives Matter, when we have all been confronted with systemic inequalities. I thought the way in which

Black History Month was covered extensively by our PSB channels, in new challenging ways, was another example of the cultural power of that £2.6billion investment. It doesn’t mean that identity-defining shows are the exclusive preserve of the PSBs. Not at all. Witness the growing portfolio of great series from Sky. But the PSBs form a bedrock, in so many ways.

The other day, I asked Amazon’s Alexa to play some Chopin. Her deathless reply was: “What sort of shopping channel would you like?” I want a future in which I can find Chopin as well as shopping channels.

My third point is national resilience. In the biggest crisis we’ve faced since the Second World War, we’ve relied on our most popular TV channels to communicate key Covid public service messages to mass audiences and, quite properly, to scrutinise government performance.

This is not just about the message, it’s also about the medium. It may well be that most of TV is distributed by the internet within a decade. But we’d be well advised to maintain other means of distribution, such as the digital terrestrial television (DTT) system that many Britons still rely on. We’ve always been told a world war in the future will be nuclear. I beg to differ. The next world war will be digital, and arguably it’s already started (GCHQ

reported that Russia is trying to seed anti-vax sentiments here in the UK). If the internet is ever seriously compromised, we’ll need another means of distribution, and content on it which has a defined national responsibility.

As for the PSB role in the creative industries, I wrote a report on this fast-growing sector for the government. The prediction was that it will create at least a million new jobs in the next decade. The knowledge economy is going to be critical to our future prosperity and the screen

industries are an important part of that. But we need this growth to benefit the whole country. The BBC has made major investments in Greater Manchester, Cardiff, Glasgow and Bristol. ITV maintains thriving production centres in the north west and Yorkshire, among others. Channel 4 has co-located to Leeds. This is another aspect of the delivery of public value, and public value for all.

Spare me any talk of clean slates

So we’ve got trusted news, our national conversation, resilience, and economic growth across the nations and regions. My fifth and last point is soft power. We’ve left the EU. We’ve never needed more trading partners around the world than we do now. And where our culture goes, trade often follows (I learnt this powerful lesson when I chaired Arts Council England). Our broadcasters, and the independent producers which supply them, have trebled Britain’s programme exports in the last 15 years. We have a reputation for creativity. This is allied to our happy possession of the English language. The PSB output of original content will be one of the most powerful ambassadors we have: have you listened to the BBC World Service recently? It’s magnificent, and it broadcasts our best ideas and our values to the world, 24 hours a day.

These are the compelling, contemporary arguments for PSB… or critical social content, as I prefer to call it. Of course, we need a debate about making this system fit for the current century. Again, I’ve heard would-be revolutionaries talk about starting from a “clean slate”. Really? Every country in the world is facing the same challenges from the internet, one of which is sustaining what we might term “local content for local people”. Britain has a head start because we still have strong local institutions. None is immune to reform. But spare me your tabulae rasae.

Something we do need to consider is existential threat. One applies only to the BBC. To continue to do what it does, it needs hypothecated funding. By all means debate its size and responsibilities. By all means debate the method of funding: a licence fee, a household levy, general taxation… all possibilities. But without a dedicated funding stream, it will wither and die.

The second existential issue is for all the PSB organisations. In the future, when the internet will represent the main means of TV distribution, via a small number of dominant, foreign-owned platforms. They’re already emerging: Amazon, Comcast/Sky and Apple, as well as connected TVs themselves. What will you find on their home screen? How far will you have to dig and delve to find any mention of BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub or All4? So it’s critical that we have an update of the 2003 Communications Act. It established a simple principle of prominence for PSB channels. This now needs to apply to all these dominant foreign platforms, the new gatekeepers. They should have to carry the PSB services, give them prominence and pay fair value for all the viewers they attract to their platforms. This simple arrangement will provide the consideration for the commercial PSB companies to continue to invest in public value content, such as national and regional news.

This is why I welcome PSB reviews by Ofcom and the DCMS. Let them be in no doubt as to what’s at stake. Do you recall the American wag who said that television is called a medium because it’s neither rare nor well done? Well, I believe much of our television is very well done. And it’s up to all of us to make sure it doesn’t become rare.

Peter Bazalgette is non-executive chairman of ITV and a former chairman of Arts Council England. He was knighted in 2012 for services to broadcasting. This is an edited version of a speech made at the annual Charles Wheeler Award, given for an outstanding contribution to broadcast journalism.

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