Renewing a public service broadcaster

Paul Jones, University of New South Wales

Georgina Born Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC, London, Vintage, 2005 (576 pp). ISBN 9780-09942-893-0 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

What passes for public debate about media policy in Australia moves within fairly predictable narratives. Two mainstays are the promise of ‘new technology’ and the action of a ‘mogul’. The current flurry of attention surrounding Jamie Packer’s withdrawal from ‘old media’—for, apparently, casinos—is fairly typical. Hopefully the interruption of the Packers’ Nine Network’s long ascendancy also puts paid to its occasional pretensions to be ‘the national broadcaster’. That nomenclature properly belongs, of course, to the ABC. Its often precarious fate provides a third standard narrative in Australian media policy discussion. But while the national remit is a real one, it can also signal parochialism in media policy debate. Rarely is a full understanding of media policy settings in other nations brought to bear on the Australian case. Indeed, rarely are the three standard domestic narratives brought together. We lack routine reference to what Georgina Born calls ‘a media ecology’, the broader institutional, technological, and cultural-ideological environment within which any given media institution exists.

The ‘PSB’: A Complex and Variable Media Model

Rather than see it as a national broadcaster, overseas policy observers would more likely group the ABC with other leading ‘PSBs’, public service broadcasters. The public service remit is not easy to define. Yet we did get a rare, albeit guarded, articulation of it here when David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz jumped from SBS to the ABC. As Pomeranz put it in April 2004: ‘All organisations go through change and SBS is heading in a new direction. As a passionate supporter of public broadcasting, I did not feel comfortable with this new direction’ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2004).

Too much commercialism at one PSB, so head for the other. But SBS’s new direction has been around for a while now as a PSB option and the Stratton/Pomeranz solution is hardly open to all who feel their autonomy is threatened. Autonomy from the market’s deleterious effects, a major raison d’être for PSBs, is becoming an increasingly fraught goal. While some international sharing of resources often took place, PSBs were largely conceived as national projects. Economic globalisation and global communications options such as satellite broadcasting have placed enormous pressures on those projects. We might still jump up and down each time advertising is proposed for the ABC, as would the Brits for their domestic BBC services. But neither public has any real choice about the ads that both the BBC and Foxtel permit on the BBCWorld channel here—and the dangerous precedent they set.

A neat myth has been maintained by many Australian Ministers of Communication about our broadcast media structure: ‘the best of both worlds’. It portrays Australia’s media ecology as the clever combination of a BBC-like ABC with a US-style advertising-funded system. Rather, what we have really combined is a much-valued but under-funded ABC (later joined by SBS) and a commercial sector that was never subjected to even the level of public interest regulation required for many years in the United States (Jones 2001). Our PSBs have been mainly granted complementary, not leading, roles. Unlike the BBC, the ABC lost its guaranteed source of independent revenue, the licence fee paid by all television owners. In one of its more spectacular miscalculations, the Whitlam government abolished this independent revenue stream for the ABC on the grounds that it was a regressive poll tax (Whitlam 1985, pp. 577–578).

We might still jump up and down each time advertising is proposed for
the ABC.

The UK system’s anecdotal reputation as ‘the least worst broadcasting system in the world’ was earned because public service values were generalised across all its media institutions, not just the BBC. Certainly, the BBC itself was initially hegemonic via its early monopoly in radio and was later saved from ABC-like marginalisation by its receipt of second television network (BBC2). However, from the 1950s until the rise of satellite broadcasting, each of the new commercial services established in Britain was also required to meet many stringent quality criteria. Crucially, unlike Australia, the British went to great lengths to structurally inhibit the head-to-head competition of US-style television networks. This meant that, until relatively recently, what economists call ‘market failures’—such as imitative ‘downmarket’ competition for the same audience—were largely absent. The famous ITV production companies of Channel 3 (Thames, Yorkshire, Granada etcetera) were granted local regional monopolies in advertising, and Channel 4 initially could not sell its own advertising. Most remarkably, all commercial news production was outsourced (!) to an independent provider. So while Georgina Born’s latest book is primarily about the BBC, it also maps the shifts in this complex ecology and partly draws on parallel research she did outside the BBC (see, for example, Born 2003).

Consulting an Anthropologist

As the boards of PSBs grapple with scenarios for their long-term survival, it seems a fair bet that calling in an anthropologist wouldn’t be high up the executive summary lists. Nor was it so at the BBC when Georgina Born came knocking. Remarkably, though, the BBC did allow her in to conduct her fieldwork between 1996 and 1998 with follow-ups in 2001 and 2003. Even by the standards of besieged PSBs, this period, which covers the directorships of John Birt and Greg Dyke, was one of unusual tumult. The result is a superbly crafted landmark text in media policy research and media sociology/anthropology.

As one reads Born’s extraordinary account of her time at the Beeb it’s tempting to cast her as the first female Dr Who, right down to her being addressed as the (nameless) anthropologist (a la ‘the doctor’). Alas, one of the things we learn from Born’s fieldwork is that such quaintly respectful eccentricity can no longer be afforded within the BBC, even if it can within a revamped Doctor Who. The whole exercise may connote the same kind of cross-temporal montage as the antique blue police box’s materialisation in today’s London. But Born is addressed as ‘the anthropologist’—and on one spectacular occasion as ‘that anthropologist woman’ (p. 12)—far more commonly from managerialist hauteur than from any fond admiration for Cambridge boffins and long scarves.

It’s tempting to cast Georgina Born as the first female Dr Who.

Moreover, the novelty value of an anthropologist actively working in a first world country is long gone. British anthropologists, for example, have been mixing ethnographies of High Street shopping with other fieldwork for many years. Similarly, American and British social anthropologists and sociologists have been studying journalists, including those at the BBC, on and off for decades. Born’s work stands out because her strong suit has become longer-term studies of whole public cultural institutions and their tendentious relations with the state. Her previous major work was a study of IRCAM, Pierre Boulez’s ambitious state-funded centre for musical innovation in Paris (Born 1995). And where a previous generation of academic participant observers often spent most of their time learning the basic rules of the game of another profession/trade, Born’s background as a successful musician gives her a very high level of local knowledge—if surprisingly little cultural capital—on entry. So we get an unusually rich holistic mixture of micro-ethnographic detail of social networks and decision-making with macro-state policy and institutional context.

Even so, there is the risk that this is all too obvious. For Australian readers, especially, some of Born’s major themes are very familiar from the more transparent siege and under-funding of the ABC. Indeed, it would a useful research exercise to compare Born’s account with Richard Alston’s press releases while Minister for Communications to see just which BBC developments he cherry-picked. Like every other institution of the former UK welfare state, the BBC has been pushed further and further into a market logic. It was spared outright privatisation at the price of increased political quiescence imposed upon its journalism—especially by its Board of Governors—and by the introduction of maddeningly inefficient internal markets and compulsory outsourcing of much other program production. (When Born records a script about new contemporary music for BBC Radio 3’s Record Review program, she discovers that the production unit can’t afford adequate name pronunciation support at the going rate of 12p per name.). There are thus striking parallels between Born’s accounts of the destruction of internal morale in parts of the BBC and, for example, Quentin Dempster’s insider account of the ABC from 2000, Death Struggle and Margaret Simons’s (2005) more recent investigative journalistic work.

So what secrets can such a major ethnography uncover? Firstly, like good investigative journalism, we get inside information about actual production practices—something largely missing from Ken Inglis’s recent historical study of the ABC (2006). Born’s revelations tend to deflate, as one might expect, the more pompous forms of self-description of ‘the creatives’ and the absoluteness of journalistic claims to objectivity. Again, the risk of reporting the obvious is real here. But how Born confronts this risk is the key to the genius of her approach. She never stops at the necessary first stage of debunking superannuated shibboleths. She is too well informed—empirically and theoretically—to fall into the trap of arguing that because actual professional practices don’t fully correspond with proclaimed professional norms, then one should set aside any serious intellectual pursuit of those norms.

For Australian readers some of Born’s major themes are very familiar.

Indeed, concerns about the renewal of PSBs’ professional norms and quality are the lifeblood of this book. This is not only because Born’s holistic approach puts the previous two management regimes at the BBC into context, both historical and ‘ecological’. Her narrative shows how the deeply embedded quality ecology of the British media landscape has been eroded. Of course it was ‘least worst’, not perfect. It was deeply paternalistic as early left-wing critics like Raymond Williams had pointed out—for Williams such paternalism was ‘an authoritarian system with a conscience’ (Williams 1962, p. 90). Born is particularly good at showing how insensitive to cultural diversity was ‘the duopoly’ of the BBC and ITV. During the 1990s louder criticism came from the political right, especially within the Murdoch press in Britain. Such shifts in the sources of criticism of PSBs underlined the fact that the paternalism Williams had criticised was in danger of being replaced by a neoliberal regime visibly lacking in the conscience department. While this tendency is plainly present in the internal struggles within the BBC, Born’s evidence suggests that the conscience of the BBC’s own professionals has continued to critically renew itself.

At the level of the ecology, Born shows that the elevation of a so-called competition ethos inside the BBC depended on an earlier wave of legislative softening of the outer trenches of regulated commercial broadcasting. In short, dramatic changes elsewhere set the scene for a head-to-head competition the predictable consequence of which was a tendency to push all the major players downmarket. Channel Four, then, turned from the commissioner of quality independent programs into the patron of the first Big Brother. Nowhere did this shift hit harder within the BBC than the unit Born studied most closely: the Drama Group. Aesthetic criteria per se effectively disappeared from program planning, to be replaced by spurious market research-based templates. The political complexities of an attempted television production of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children eventually overwhelmed it. Pitches for successful new programs were increasingly similar: ‘Clones and hybrids ruled OK’ (p. 349).

Born’s story is anything but a tale of inevitable decline.

BBC television journalism—mainly the flagship Newsnight current affairs programme—was another of Born’s areas of fieldwork. She has also included a postscript-like discussion of debates around the 2003–2004 Hutton Inquiry into the David Kelly/Iraq WMDs affair and the BBC’s coverage of the Iraq war more generally. This might sound like too neat a closure, as Hutton’s criticism of the BBC led to the resignation of Director-General Dyke. Likewise, Born plainly supports the view that the BBC’s scepticism towards the WMD justification for invasion was justified. But her analysis is far more nuanced than mere agreement with the BBC’s—or Greg Dyke’s—defenders. Unlike almost any other commentator on these matters, including many within the BBC, Born is able to draw openly on her highly detailed knowledge of the internal production changes within BBC journalism of the previous decade. On the specific issues relating to the ‘Gilligan affair’—in which Blair’s Director of Communications Alastair Campbell was reported to have ‘sexed up’ key documents relating to Saddam’s WMD capability—she provides a very precise assessment that neither endorses nor absolves the BBC’s practices. But neither is it blandly ‘balanced’: ‘The public interest served by Gilligan’s report is plain’ (p. 461). The complexity Born unravels involves issues as diverse as the relative weakness of investigative journalistic traditions within the BBC, the ‘battery farm journalism’ in which Gilligan was obliged to participate, and the confused and inadequate management response to the enormous pressures the Blair government put on the BBC.

Digital Futures?

Yet even the combination of such political pressure, orchestrated public criticism and the rise and rise of Murdoch’s satellite television proved an insufficient challenge to the United Kingdom’s broader public service ecology. So Born’s story is anything but a tale of inevitable decline, as even the most superficial comparison of the BBC and ABC today confirms (without wishing the latter scenario on the ABC).

Digital television policy is perhaps the most obvious point of comparison but, again, we need to look at Born’s ecology to fully appreciate the contrast. Discussion of digital television usually distinguishes the digitisation of conventional terrestrial ‘free-to-air’ television (DTTV) from the digitisation of subscription systems based in satellite and cable transmission. Initially, digitisation of free-to-air television appeared to offer a choice between more channels within the same amount of broadcast spectrum or improved picture quality to quasi-cinema ‘high definition’ standard (HDTV). The latter, predictably, was initially adopted as the model in Australia, because it protected our cocooned commercial television networks from competition. It is now technically possible to have both HDTV and multi-channelled DTTV (Starks 2007).

By contrast, the United Kingdom pioneered the multi-channelling path. As Born demonstrates, this policy field revealed one of the rare social democratic edges of New Labour. The inequities of ‘the digital divide’ remains a real concern for British policy planners and so a strong PSB presence in digital television was always assumed. Such a substantive PSB leadership role has never been the practice here. Rather, Australian PSBs have been required to take up roles deemed unprofitable by the commercial sector. Australian DTTV policy was recently reconfigured so that an ‘unofficial’ leadership role has been conferred on our PSBs to encourage digital take-up at a time of severe under-funding (Pham & Spurgeon 2007).

The BBC challenged ‘the future is in niches’ ideology
head on.

In contrast, and with adequate funding in place, BBC management looked beyond the short-termism of market research and the pseudo-inevitablism of technology-driven predictions on this occasion. After a series of stop-start commercial failures by others, the BBC co-developed a new DTTV portal, Freeview. In practice this meant—and still means—that British viewers need only make a once off payment for a set-top box that gives access to a plethora of channels, including BBC3 and BBC4. In short, British audiences with set-top boxes gain a better range of channels for a once off payment (of about £40) than Australians do by paying AUD$50 per month for a cable or satellite service. Thus, in the United Kingdom, Freeview also represents a direct challenge to Murdoch’s subscription-based BSkyB satellite service (p. 488).

In digital programming, the common PSB problem of an alienated youth audience—that is, alienated from PSBs—was grasped as an opportunity (as JJJ has more modestly done here recently). The BBC challenged ‘the future is in niches’ ideology head on by programming multi-genre digital channels that expanded the PSB ethos into the new platforms in much the same way that BBC radio had expanded a generation before and with the same kind of complementary relationship BBC2 television had always maintained with the more populist BBC1. Born has more recently argued (2006, p. 10) that such multi-platform strategies have also been redefining public service practices to recognise Britain’s cultural diversity.

An anthropology of the ABC would undoubtedly be useful here. But far better would be a media policy alternative that took seriously the media ecology as the overarching frame of policy development. There is no better guide than Georgina Born’s book to the minutiae of how public service values produce different outcomes at all levels of media practice. Were its lessons widely adopted, defending our PSBs might move from essential but limited defensive rearguard campaigns toward an increased role for public service values across the Australian media ecology.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2004, ‘Movie Luminaries David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz Join ABC TV’, Programming media release [Online], Available: [2007, Jun 12].

Born, G. 1995, Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Pierre Boulez and the Institutionalization of an Avant-Garde, UCLA Press, Berkeley.

Born, G. 2003, ‘Strategy, positioning and projection in digital television: Channel Four and the commercialization of public service broadcasting in the UK’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 773–799.

Born, G. 2006, ‘Digitizing democracy’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 76, Supplement 1, August, pp. 102–123.

Dempster, Q. 2000, Death Struggle: How Political Malice and Boardroom Powerplays Are Killing the ABC, Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

Inglis, K. 2006, Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983–2006, Black Inc., Melbourne.

Jones, P. 2001, ‘The best of both worlds? Freedom of communication and “positive” broadcasting regulation’, Media Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 3, May, pp. 407–417.

Pham, N. & Spurgeon, C. 2007, ‘Is anyone listening? The fate of diversity in digital broadcasting policy’, Media International Australia, no. 122, February, pp. 25–27.

Simons, M. 2005, ‘Inside the ABC’, in Do Not Disturb: Is the Media Failing Australia?, ed. R. Manne, Black Inc, Melbourne.

Starks, M. 2007, ‘Lessons from the pioneers of digital switchover’, paper presented to seminar on ‘Switching to digital television’ sponsored by the Centre For Media & Communications Law, University of Melbourne, Sydney, June 7.

Whitlam, G. 1985, The Whitlam Government 1972–1975, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Williams, R. 1962, Communications, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Paul Jones is Senior Lecturer in Media & Cultural Sociology at the University of NSW. His Raymond Williams’s Sociology of Culture was republished in paperback last year by Palgrave. He is currently Co-CI with Michael Pusey on an ARC funded research project, Political Communication & Media Regulation in Australia.

View other articles by Paul Jones: