How does “public service” work for media and culture in the 21st century?

When the Tate produces high quality videos and broadcasts them via iTunes, when the National Theatre transmits performances around the country via local cinemas, why should they not be funded in the same way as the BBC or Channel 4?

With digital technology and internet distribution, we are all producers. The outputs of our diverse cultural institutions are converging in the digital domain.  Public funding policy needs to be reformed and converged to match.

The UK has long benefited from a globally respected media and cultural sector, often highly subsidised by the public purse. With the purse no longer bulging, we need to re-examine the ways that we direct spending. In fact, we need a comprehensive review to ask:  What is the definition of public service remit in the 21st century? And who should implement it?

It no longer makes sense for the government to manage its culture and media budgets between the departments of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and Business Innovations and Skills (BIS) as well as via the baffling array of organisations: the Arts Council, Design Council, Film Council, NESTA, Ofcom, the BBC’s Board of Governors, and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The list goes on. Each has its different measures of effectiveness and approaches to management. Many of these august bodies have developed out of historical necessity; today they comprise an unwieldy legacy. Now is the time to do more than simply trim budgets.

Commercial interest is growing fast in reviving and globalising our cultural assets, whether they are the orphans of the BBC archive or the British Library newspaper collection. The myriad opportunities that arise out of digitisation represent what I call the “digital dividend”.

Balancing the needs of public service and private gain is the challenge. This is a matter of choosing the right projects and having a clear national policy of what public service is. We will want to avoid the pitfalls of cherry-picking and encourage the custodians of content to digitize their assets when they have a clear view of what to do with them.

Portfolio management in cultural businesses is often a balance between creating popular, tried-and-tested products and innovative, speculative ones. For the longest time, the old Reithian ethic of “educate, entertain and inform” combined those elements whilst avoiding emergent issues that complicate it. Today, it’s not just about what content to produce and exploit, but about who is empowered to do so and how. Whose responsibility is it to create and disseminate an online-curriculum? Who dictates the terms of trade for independent web development companies working for a national institution? The inexperienced institution worries about being fleeced by the commercial player who in turn accuses the institution of undermining his business opportunity, and the small development company feels unable to control its own intellectual property.

Our national portfolio of cultural assets is bureaucratically managed and the investment strategy is out-of-date and inconsistent. Why subsidise and showcase television, but not computer games or applications development? Why put on the Proms, but leave Womad in the mud?

The question is how to re-scope the public service remit and resuscitate the Rethian ethic for the 21st century.  Who should be charged with fulfilling a public service remit? Why have a TV licence fee but not an internet licence fee? What should be the public service remit of a mobile phone operator?

Sustainability will be key.  The term may be a cliché of policy-makers but, in the context of the digital dividend, sustainability means developing business skills and commercial mind-sets that allow new ecologies of private and public organisations to flourish, based on entrepreneurship – not the skills needed to fill out a grant application form.

Despite its name, the Digital Economy Act (DEA) will do little to stimulate the economy. Its focus is mainly on trying to stop consumers doing what the technology makes it easy for them to do. The “digital dividend” requires the collaboration of new partners to deliver it. It also requires legal reform to boost it. The proposed changes to copyright laws that were dropped from the DEA in the interests of pre-election expediency are still required to enable orphaned assets to become accessible and to allow rights clearance processes to be modernised. We need to consider the entire approach to licensing of rights, the basic concept of copyright when a reproduction right is almost unenforceable, and how moral rights can be better used to protect our creators.

The current debate between rights holders and internet service providers over who should pay for the enforcement of copyright under the terms of the DEA is one piece in the puzzle, defining the new public service remit.  The challenge is to find the other pieces that will stimulate innovation and give us all an incentive to generate digital dividends for public good and commercial gain.

The UK’s status as a leading producer of global culture is at risk. It needs a new body to administer culture, media and digital policy in a unified way. Its first goal should be to re-scope the public service remit and then oversee the necessary legal changes. If there is light to be found in this darkest of budgetary moments, it is in the new efficiencies that will come from reform.


2 responses to “How does “public service” work for media and culture in the 21st century?

  1. Are you reading this ED???

  2. Pingback: Public sector support for culture and the creative industries « creative blogging

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