Democracy and Public Broadcasting

Tom Mills


Public service broadcasting and its commercial alternatives – most notably the corporate media system that developed in the United States – each represented distinct elite responses to the emergence of new communicative technologies in the context of industrialization, working-class political mobilization, and universal suffrage. Both sought to unify classes around a shared ‘common culture’, and thereby to manage conflicting interests in capitalist societies. In the case of commercial broadcasting systems, this was mediated by capitalist enterprises drawing on expertise in marketing, advertising, and public relations, and appealed to the population as consumers. In the case of the BBC, it was mediated by sections of the Oxbridge educated cultural elite with appeals to middle-class culture and the symbols and rituals of the British imperial state.

It is the extent to which the interests of the broadcasting professionals and bureaucrats have been aligned with or subordinated to other institutions, groups, and classes that reveals the democratic potential and limitations of public service broadcasting. Throughout its long history, the BBC has been thoroughly entangled with the British state and embedded within wider networks of social power. An adequate analysis of the politics of the BBC means getting to grips with a complex set of institutional arrangements in a way that social histories of intellectuals and artists rarely do, and paying close attention not only to the BBC itself, but also to wider shifts in society that have impacted on its institutional culture.

It is especially important to avoid the all-too-common liberal error of fetishizing public service broadcasting and assuming it has an inherently democratic character. Public service broadcasting is not a coherent blueprint for democratic broadcasting, but a rather a loose set of ideas associated with a historically contingent set of institutional arrangements which have in fact never been particularly democratic. What it has offered is an institutional space outside of capitalist control, which in the absence of much in the way of formal mechanisms of accountability can be regarded as more or less democratic depending on how closely the interests of the broadcasting professionals and bureaucrats, and the institutional structures within which they operate, align with those of the public; or from a more pluralistic perspective, how and to what extent their creative and editorial judgments reflect particular interests in society. This more sociological perspective is particularly important when it comes to analyzing the changes the BBC went through with the gathering crisis of social democracy in the late 1960s and 1970s. As this essay will show, the pressure for democratic reform of the broadcasting establishment, which came from social movements and the left at that time, was eclipsed by the subsequent neoliberal reform agenda that has been the dominant policy paradigm ever since. The essay will conclude with an assessment of current proposals and prospects for radical democratic reform of public service media.

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