Sonia LivingstoneThe LSE’s Sonia Livingstone, research director of the EU Kids Online Network and Parenting for a Digital Future (www.parenting.digital), looks at the stagnation in UK and EU media literacy policies and offers some suggestions for improvement.

The statements below are, to the best of my knowledge, the (only) two places where media literacy is officially built into regulation in the UK and EU respectively:

“It shall be the duty of OFCOM to take such steps, and to enter into such arrangements, as appear to them calculated […] to bring about, or to encourage others to bring about [Media literacy]” (Section 11, Duty to promote media literacy, Communications Act 2003)

“Not later than 19 December 2011, and every 3 years thereafter, the Commission shall submit to the European Parliament, to the Council and to the European Economic and Social Committee a report on the application of this Directive and, if necessary, make further proposals to adapt it to developments in the field of audiovisual media services, in particular in the light of recent technological developments, the competitiveness of the sector and levels of media literacy in all Member States.” (Article 33, Audiovisual Media Services Directive, 2010)

Each of these statements is accompanied by a lengthy definition of media literacy, neither very satisfactory. In practice, both statements have proved as strong or as weak as policy makers and regulators wish them to be:

  • In the EU, support has waxed and waned, seemingly dependent on the interest of particular politicians or policy makers and rarely making year-on-year progress. At present, frustration over the contested definitions of media literacy, along with even greater frustration over the difficulties of measuring media literacy in the populations of member states, seems to have led to a stalemate in policy progress (except, again, in relation to internet safety). And while the Commission has been being reorganised over the past year, the future of media literacy policy in Europe has seemed extremely uncertain.

But now, as of May 2015, we have a new government in the UK, and a new policy lead for media literacy as the AVMS Directive is revisited by the European Commission. So is this a moment to hope for better?

It matters more today than ever what citizens and consumers know about their changing media environment. It’s also important that we understand what people need to know to play a full role in our mediated society. And it is thought-provoking to ask about the likely detriment if they don’t have this knowledge.

We might here be inspired by the recent UNECSO Declaration on Media and Information Literacies. Policies on media literacy and digital rights are being developed in a number of countries, for all we like to think the UK leads in this domain. We certainly must avoid repeating past mistakes: pointless definitional arguments (after all, why not let a thousand flowers bloom?), fruitless efforts to measure media literacy with a single and highly-reductive indicator, and inflated and unaffordable expectations about educating the entire population in all dimensions of media literacy simultaneously.

What we need now is commitment, within member states and from the Commission itself, in order to:

  • Recognise and capitalise the often-creative and dedicated efforts to implement media literacy and media education that are going on all around Europe (there are too many of these to mention, yet no-one knows what or where they are, even in their own country!).
  • Share best practice (I mean this seriously – for instance, why doesn’t the UK actively engage all schools and media to hold an annual media literacy week as in The Netherlands or Canada, among other countries?)
  • Build on the considerable and growing evidence base regarding the multiple dimensions of media literacy.
  • Encourage efforts to benchmark progress (increases in media literacy, ever wider reach) and celebrate success (why not have more prizes, for instance, as awarded by the Evens Foundation?).

In case those with the power to do this need a reminder of why media literacy is important, let me restate the case in closing:

  • More and more people are using the media in more and more ways, including for work, consumption, education and political participation. Media literacy is no longer a matter of simply engaging with the media but of engaging with society through the media.
  • The more that the media mediate everything in society, the more vital it is that people are informed about and critically engaged with the media themselves – able to judge how they can be most effectively accessed, what’s useful or misleading, how they are regulated, when they can be trusted, or what commercial or political interests are at stake?
  • Such knowledge represents a moving target. At the same time that society becomes more dependent on the media, the media are themselves becoming more complex, fast-changing, commercial and globalised. Such circumstances can too easily result in widening and unequal knowledge gaps within populations unless counter-measures are instituted in the interests of social justice.

In sum, without attention and resources devoted to media literacy I suggest the public faces more inequalities in terms of access, information and skills, more safety and security difficulties and abuses of personal data, and a narrowing of opportunity, understanding,and critical judgement.

This post gives the views of the author, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.