UiO: foto Gunn Enli, assosiert professor

The debate about the BBC has been dominated by the notion of ‘distinctiveness’, but does this represent a productive starting point for the debate and where does it lead us? Through the lens of a Nordic media scholar, Gunn Enli, LSE Visiting Fellow and Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo, reflects on the recent debates about the future regulation of public service broadcasting (PSB) in the UK, and argues that lessons learned from PSBs in Nordic countries can inform the debate about the BBC. 

The current debate about the future of the BBC has been dominated by a search for the holy grail of ‘distinctiveness’, as if that characteristic were able to solve the tensions that exist between commercial media companies, the licence fee funded BBC and policymakers. The recent speech by the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport John Whittingdale at the Oxford Media Convention – in which he chose to stress the importance of the BBC’s distinctiveness – is an example of how policy makers use the term in order to appear responsive to the interests of both the commercial broadcasters and the BBC. There is little doubt that the BBC needs to be distinctive, meaning that the institution should offer programmes that are different from what commercial operators offer in order to justify the licence fee. The problem is that the longer we go in the direction of measuring distinctiveness at the cost of other important ideals for public service broadcasting (PSB), there is a risk that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I will explain why this is so by drawing on my comparative perspective as a Norwegian scholar living in London for the past few months. While the debate about PSB in the UK has parallels with current debates in the Nordic region, there are also significant differences. Nordic public service broadcasting has always been inspired by the BBC; the programming, institutional strategies, and role in society have widely informed the organisation of public service broadcasting institutions in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland.

However, in the current debate about the future of the BBC, it might be an idea to turn the tables, because there are lessons to be learned from the Nordic PSBs. This is important, because forthcoming policy decisions about the BBC will influence not only the BBC and other UK broadcasters, but will also have a knock-on effect on the entire European media landscape, since European countries often look at policy developments in the UK with studied interest. From a Nordic perspective, it would be discouraging if the BBC, seen by many as the iconic institution for PSB globally and set up with a remit to “inform, educate and entertain”, ended up with ‘distinctiveness’ as its main guiding principle. Any strategy to prioritise ‘distinctiveness’ above other aspects of broadcasting could be damaging, because it would undermine the fundamental purpose of public service broadcasting, and the important role it plays in society. Rather than discussing the future prospects of the BBC primarily from the perspective of economic and market regulation, we should discuss PSB with a greater emphasis on the public value of media companies.

A region perhaps best known for IKEA, oil, fjords, and Scandinavian noir, the Nordic region has recently also been referred to as an ‘ideal society’ by academic scholars in international debates on politics and the economy. Political scientists have been interested in the ‘Nordic model’ because of its many paradoxes, which include: a high birth rate in spite of a high proportion of working women; high social and gender equality in spite of a rapid increase in wealth; and a high degree of press freedom in the region – in 2015, four out of the top five countries for press freedom were Nordic countries according to the index by Reporters Without Borders – in spite of state support for media by way of press subsidies. With regard to this last point, it is important to make clear that the states’ financial aid to newspapers does not influence editorial decision-making, which is strongly independent. Likewise, Nordic public broadcasters are regulated at ‘arm’s length’, in spite of state ownership.

The rationale behind the regulation of Nordic media is closely related to the socio-economic and political welfare state model. This connection between the welfare state and the media has recently been conceptualised by some scholars as the Media Welfare State. This model proposes that the media is regulated to serve the public interest, and to encourage increased equality, integration and participation in society by means of creating and facilitating an informed public debate. The Nordic PSBs are regulated by a high degree of political consensus, which is based on a fundamental trust in the role of the state. In general, the public sector in Nordic countries is accountable to the public and the state, which in turn helps to create trust. Public service broadcasting plays an important part in creating a society where ordinary people consider themselves to be citizens in a broader society, rather than primarily as consumers in a public market.

How does this inform the debate about the BBC? First, the BBC should be regarded as a public service institution in line with for example schools, hospitals, and the police, and assessed accordingly. The model of a public service institution implies that the benefits it offers society should be seen from a more overarching perspective than merely the notion of ‘distinctiveness’. If commercial broadcasters in some cases provide more or less equivalent services to the BBC, that does not eliminate the public service institution’s obligation to provide that particular service as well. The difference between a publicly funded broadcaster and a commercial broadcaster is the accountability a publicly-funded broadcaster has to both the public and the state: a defining feature of its operations.

Second, the BBC should provide comprehensive programming; serving both large and small audiences. It should not be reduced to serving niche audience groups or to providing ‘distinctive’ programming that competitor commercial channels may be unwilling or unable to provide. This is because ‘universality’ is the key to the legitimacy of the licence fee arrangement, and to the fundamental principle underpinning public broadcasting. Accordingly, the BBC should be popular and broadly appealing, and should not be afraid to expand to new platforms. This may mean that the distinction between the PSBs and their competitors will sometimes be debatable. Yet, in order to retain a central role in society, the BBC should not leave popular entertainment programming to commercial broadcasters alone.

A third lesson from the Nordic region is that the BBC should not be evaluated only through its programming and services, but also by its direct and indirect impact on the media landscape. In the Nordic region, the high level of funding for PSBs (as a point of comparison, the 2016 licence fee in Norway is set at €304 while in the UK the equivalent cost is €188) means that PSBs can work to high editorial standards, both in the realm of news and current affairs and popular entertainment. In many countries, the legitimacy of public service broadcasters nowadays partly rests on setting the “standard” in terms of quality and innovation. Through diversity of genres and quality in content, PSB is expected to lead private players by example and to raise the expectations of audience members so that they demand high quality also from commercial channels.

Based on the Nordic experience, we can assume that in order to be a positive force in society, public service broadcasters need to play an important and central role in society, to be popular among audiences, and be given leeway to innovate. This implies that ‘distinctiveness’ should not be put forward as an instrumental rationale for BBC, but rather that the concept of ‘public value’ should instead be at the centre of the debate. The role of public service broadcasting should not be reduced to defined genres or niches, because we must never forget that the P in PSB stands for ‘public’.

This blog 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.