The Reithian legacy and contemporary public service ethos

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British broadcasting has been described as “possibly the greatest single system of diverse, quality communication the world has ever seen” (Tracey, 1998: viii). Its defining public service character is exemplified above all in the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the broadcasting philosophy of its first Director General, John Reith. Yet since the launch of the BBC itself, the idea of a public service ethos in broadcasting has raised profound questions about the purpose and function of the mass media; the nature of the audience and the limits of the market; and public value, private interest and the relationship between private and public culture in society. What do we mean by ‘public service broadcasting’? On one level, it is simply aparticular means of organizing a particular technology of mass communication in order to facilitate certain outcomes. However, the public service ethos is also an attitude of mind, a way of thinking about the role of broadcasting within a society. Characteristics of public service broadcasting typically cited include universality of access; diversity, distinctiveness and quality of program content; serving of minority as well as majority interests; freedom from commercial pressures through public financing and from political interference through independent oversight; public accountability; impartiality; and a commitment to innovation (Tracey, 1998: 26-32; Debrett, 2009: 808-13; Hendy, 2013: 3). Public service broadcasting is also seen as having a nationalizing function, reflecting national culture and identity and defining the boundaries of what constitutes the “national community” (Born, 2005: 512). National media systems are social institutions, and the nature and extent of apublic service ethos within a country’s media system is contingent historically on the technologies it employs and the society within which it is situated. Any discussion of the history of public service broadcasting in Britain therefore has to accommodate social, political, cultural and technological change as well as changing definitions of public service, the public interest and the public good over time. It has also to recognize the extent to which public service broadcasting has always representedsomething beyond broadcasting itself. The public service ethos in broadcasting has been variously described as a “moral system” (Tracey, 1998: xvi), a “mission” (Hendy, 2013: 6), “a class of special pleading” (North, 2007: 34) or akin to “creationism” (Murdoch, 2009: 4). At its best, public service broadcasting has been seen as the essential expression of the democratic public sphere; at its worst, as the embodiment of an anti-market and elitist cultural hegemony. To Reith himself, broadcasting put us “in touch with the infinite” (Reith, 1924: 217). Yet the ‘Reithian legacy’ itself is a term often used to justify historical developments that have strayed far from Reith’s original philosophy of broadcasting. This chapter traces the origins of the idea of public service broadcasting in Britainfrom Reith’s original vision of the role and function of broadcasting in the 1920s. It addresses how that vision evolved over succeeding decades as the political, social and media environment in which it operated changed, and considers its enduring legacy for British broadcasting in a multimedia world very different from anything Reith or his successors would have envisaged.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to British Media History
EditorsMartin Conboy, John Steel
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages11
ISBN (Print)9780415537186
Publication statusPublished - 03 Sept 2014


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