"Diversity or Anarchy:
Current Debates in Broadcasting 10; Papers from the 31st Manchester Broadcasting
Symposium." University of Luton Press, 2003. Paperback. 256 pages. 23 euros.
Reviewed by Peter O'Brien,
A reviewer should be up
front about his biases. When the reviewer is a University of Chicago trained economist
and the subjects concern the turbulent world of broadcasting, the transparency
requirement is doubly present. And when that person comes from what used to be
called the "Celtic fringe" of the islands of Britain and Ireland, silence on background
would be unpardonable. Now to business.
The presentations, papers
and discussions brought together in this volume meet fully the heading "Current
Debates in Broadcasting." Issues of technological convergence in communications,
whether or not bandwidth is really scarce, how to (perhaps whether to) try and
regulate possible monopoly or oligopoly power within and across media, are all
of concern to most countries. The intense debate generated by the mid 2003 proposals
of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for reform of the Federal regulatory
framework in the US is proof enough. Yet in Britain there are further issues,
which the 2001 Manchester Symposium sought to examine. While not entirely unique
to Britain, they are problems that a number of other countries may soon (if not
now) have to face.
First and foremost is
the historical and political context of broadcasting in Britain (I use the term
in its geographic sense, meaning the land mass including Scotland, Wales, and
England). For the past couple of decades, intense historical research plus cultural
revivals of languages, and lately Blair government measures for political devolution,
have given tremendous impetus to what, as Sylvia Harvey rightly says, is "a debate
that has been going on actually for several hundred years about just how united
is the United Kingdom" (p.29). Broadcasting policy in Britain cannot be divorced
from that evolving setting.
Questions about how much
funding should go to areas other than London, where programs should be made, the
voices that are heard, the accents in which English is spoken, all these and several
others are tied up with profound struggles over democracy and representation.
It's not just a Scotland-Wales-Northern Ireland matter. Taken together their population
is around 8 million, with a similar number in the London area. But another 41
million people are elsewhere, and their concerns are poorly handled.
In a penetrating set of
observations, Fionna Wailes Swaiburn shows how the centripetal forces that have
been crucial to building the external (meaning outside the islands) image of Britain,
have damaged the quality of work of the media. The metro bias leaves so many voices
unheard. In her words "the real stories (particularly in an age where image and
news manipulation by both government and business is commonplace) almost inevitably
unfold in the back streets, back rooms and back waters rather than on the stage
sets reserved for news by government spin" (p.42).
It has always been the
case that when government and the media are comfortable in bed together, the people
should be uncomfortable. What Wailes Swaiburn calls "authoritarian liberalism"
in Britain (a phenomenon recognizable in so much of the Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development) has brought the media to a crisis point. "My general
sense is that as an industry we are conspiring against one of our primary roles
- that of questioning those who have most power over us" (p.47).
The second issue with
a special British slant is quality in broadcasting. It has been there from the
beginning. Since the initial Parliamentary Acts in the late 1920s, broadcasters
have been enjoined to preserve and promote quality, and to perform a public service.
The injunction raises at least three questions. What is meant by quality (and
whose opinions count in deciding what is quality)? Once defined, how are the criteria
to be applied? And what body is to monitor quality? In a society undergoing major
social and economic shifts, responses to those concerns have to change.
The Symposium took the
quality conundrum as its keynote theme (with the title "Media Unlimited - Pity
the Poor Regulator"). Its findings can be encapsulated in a single phrase: "The
more all parties (regulators and regulated) dialogue together, the more likely
is it that outcomes will be about right." Indeed, the tone of Symposium discussions
suggested that the Radio Authority (the regulator) engages in more self-flagellation
than the broadcasters themselves think necessary. What Britain now has is a mix
of radio stations that appear to cater to a very wide range of interests, and
where there is no significant case of communications behavior that would be regarded
as abusive. Audience surveys do not show major gaps in service, while barriers
to entry for possible new broadcasters do not seem especially high. Admittedly,
the latter statement holds much more for radio than television, a field in which
programming costs for fresh product are much higher.
Issue No. 3 in Britain
is again bound up with history, this time the foreign empire. Over the past half
century immigration has been substantial. Any serious attempt both to cater to
the range of linguistic and cultural needs of the diverse communities, and to
maintain some connectedness amidst the diversity, involves broadcasting policy.
The evidence about Britain's current situation seems mixed.
A Council of Europe report
in 2000 indicated the British press was among the most racist in the continent.
A 1999 survey of 2000 journalists judged to be at "influential levels" in the
press discovered that 43% were black or Asian, a figure much higher than the proportion
of those communities in the population as a whole (some 7%). On the other hand,
more than half of that percentage was employed on just four newspapers. In television
there is nobody from these communities at top management level in any channel.
In terms of language coverage
the position is improving, with upwards of 30 ethnic channels available on cable
TV (to which Asian communities, in particular, are relatively heavy subscribers).
Perhaps more significantly, Britain is showing increasing production of media
work done by and for minorities. The hit TV show on the archetypal Indian family
in Britain has, in the first half of 2003, sold rights to a number of countries,
including the US. Curiously enough, then, Britain may in some respects play a
lead role in certain dimensions of broadcasting diversity.
So far, so good - there
is plenty in the volume to point up the controversies arising from Britain's historical
development. On the legal/economic side, it's not surprising that, given his biases,
this viewer would have liked even more.
It was in the UK that
the Nobel prize winning economist R H Coase first (in 1950) essayed into broadcasting
with his study of the BBC and monopoly. His seminal work in the US came nine years
later, where he argued that bandwidth should be traded freely in the private market
rather than be allocated through a licensing mechanism managed by a public (or
Differing solutions to
the bandwidth issue continue to be promoted, even as digital technological progress
seems to make it ever more apparent that, at least for broadcasting purposes,
spectrum may no longer be a scarce resource. The volume is not much concerned
with the consequences of these changes for regulation. Rather, the legal papers
published relate mainly to developments of EU law and their possible effect on
policy in Britain. This shows mostly in areas such as web site content for Internet,
and in legal dispositions on satellite TV policy.
But many papers in this
collection do hint strongly at awareness of how the economic/technological/legal
environment is moving , and at the consequences this will have for broadcasting.
As it stands, this is a good collection that fully justifies its title. Further
products from the Symposium and from University of Luton Press will no doubt ensure
that debates on broadcasting continue to be well served. TBS