Public Service Broadcasting

As it’s been a long time since I’ve attended a university lecture, tutorial or seminar, I guess I’d forgotten the importance in academic circles of reviewing literature and locating discussions within a theoretical framework, but today it all came flooding back.

At the end of a rather interesting day at work, I went to a seminar led by Dr Georgina Born from Cambridge University entitled, “Digitising Democracy: Digitisation, Pluralism, and Public Service Communications”.

Her paper canvassed a range of arguments about the degree to which cultural organisations such as the BBC (and implicitly the ABC) could or should also be agents of representative democracy. Her own personal view is that the independence of such organisations would be compromised if, by becoming agents of representative democracy, they would also become arms of government. “If you want an e-democracy, set up a new agency, don’t use the BBC”, was the essence of her argument.

Dr Born provided a reasonably brief, thumbnail sketch of the BBC’s forays into digital broadcasting, including new television, radio and online services and was largely enthusiastic about the capacity of new technologies to deliver a more representative view of the UK’s cultural diversity. I’d actually hoped she’d have spoken more about the practicalities, and I asked a question about the degree to which production models and standards had changed in the UK as a result of doing more with less, but I guess I soon realised that wasn’t really within the scope of today’s discussion.

The essence of her argument about cultural representation was that sometimes minorities speak to each other, sometimes to the broader community and sometimes to other minorities. Her argument was that the national broadcasters are charged by governments (and citizens) with national representation. She was largely optimistic that national broadcasters had the capacity at all levels, including geographically local levels, to better represent cultural diversity through the potential afforded by digitisation.

By and large, she was also positive about the Australian media landscape, though a little disappointed with – “fairly uninspiring” was how she described – the digital television services being offered by ABC and SBS.

As positive as she was, there was, however, an undercurrent of cultural cringe amongst some of those attending, leading one academic to comment that ABC “would never chase an audience of fifteen year of Muslim youth”. I assume the comment stemmed from a discussion about the BBC’s “Asian Network”. “And neither would the BBC”, she said, responding that the assumption underlying such a statement failed to understand the different experiences of immigration and multiculturalism in the UK and Australia. She observed that the often culturally conservative Asian community was a fairly natural constituency for the BBC.

Although someone did mount a spirited defence of Big Brother, there was a degree of sneering elitism amongst some of those attending. Goodness knows what some of those in the room made of my observations about the current phenomenon of late-night television game shows, though I suspect some of them had no idea such programs existed.

Another academic (who I really admire), a long term ABC and commercial television manager, and one of the founders of ABC Online, brought some sense to the room when he confessed that he couldn’t understand how his children, who were academically and politically aware young adults could spend all of their spare time playing games, watching Fox 8 and Big Brother.

And I guess it was then it became apparent there was no one in the room under 35.

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