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Diversity or Anarchy: Current Debates in Broadcasting 10; Papers from the 31st Manchester Broadcasting Symposium (2003)

"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, economist

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 quasi-public) authority.

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.

About Peter O'Brien

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