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Institutional Designs for Digitising Democracy

I'm spending the afternoon at a public lecture by Georgina Born from Cambridge University, at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland (who, as it turns out, for some time was also the cellist and bassist in British Prog icons Henry Cow). She begins with a nod towards Habermas's public sphere concept, which in relation to broadcasting has been seen as having been imperfectly realised (e.g. through the universalism of service, reach, and programming of the BBC in Britain). In these media debates, the specifically literary and cultural dimensions of the original conception of the public sphere appear to have been ignored, however, and there is also a gender issue here which privileges 'hard' content (e.g. news) over 'soft' content such as drama.

But how can public service broadcasters (or PSBs) respond to the new, digital media environment, and the industrial renewal that goes with it? What policy futures exist for PSB in this context? What, indeed, is the public sphere potential for digital media - at a time when discrimination and social diversity in Britain appear to be growing again? The social fabric no longer comprises a cohesive uniform culture, if it ever did, but these wider diversities were never addressed head-on. Recent mission statements for the BBC genuflect towards the representation cultural diversity and 'other' cultures, and in other contexts multiculturalism is constructed as a threat to be countered through social integration - real-life multicultural Britain is therefore rarely presented in the British media.

Current policy and academic debates are limited primarily to a focus on either the Internet or on digital television, in spite of the rising interest in converging media forms. An economistic discourse has held sway, which is concerned with competition, market failure, and the limits of intervention via PSB. There is a question whether the role of PSB is only to supply content in areas of market failure (filling the gaps ignored by the market), or whether the funding for PSB should be phased out altogether. Another focus is the question of digital or e-democracy, and the role of PSB in combatting the digital divide - a yoking of PSB to the service of building a 'digital Britain'. This threatens to compromise the BBC's independence by rendering it a government proxy (and is also built on the dubious argument that increasing provision of digital television will drive universal access to the Internet).

Should the BBC become an agent in a multi-tiered digital realm, then? Academic studies of PSB and digitisation similarly tend to focus only on either the Net of digital TV, and many emphasise the democratic benefits of digital media through a greater interactive participation of the public (see e.g. Stephen Coleman's work towards a national online commons) - but against this critics argue that PSB has never provided a public sphere, and instead posit three tiers of public spheres (micro-, meso-, and macro-public spheres - see John Keane). A healthy environment is one in which each of these tiers are thriving - but the central problem here remains one of operating in a globalising environment, with the as yet unanswered question of whether public debate can be driven by networks of interest groups.

There is a tendency in politics and the academy to project monolithic models of digital transition, which ignore the specific local and national contexts. In Britain's debate over digital TV, it was assumed that the American model of transition was a universal one, and it was posited as a template for the future evolution of British digital markets (an unquestioned ur-model for the forecasting of technological and industry development) - but as it turns out now, the UK model is almost entirely different from that of the U.S. This is worrying as the use of these forecasts tends to bring about the reality they predict.

Second, there is a limited understanding of the complexity of digital media in academic research, which builds on underdeveloped understandings of interactivity and choice. The BBC's activities are interesting in this context; it sees itself as operating on different scales (international, national, regional, local), and digital media are used on each scale to support its offerings, and in addition to new purely digital channels it has developed a number of inventive experiments: cross-platform events (with information placed across different media forms, sometimes also linked to specific thematic events - e.g. 'Asylum Day', 'Black History Month'); interactive features to enhance linear broadcast forms (e.g. drama programmes with information-rich Websites); 'Action Network' sites to facilitate citizen activism (in response to a crisis of political disengagement, providing tools for activists and online spaces for self-representation and self-organisation); and the £25m, 5-year 'Wired City - BBC Hull Interactive' project (which operates in a public-private partnership and promotes the local production of TV and radio content, also providing packages for schools and adult home education).

In other words, the BBC has shown an awareness to explore its interactive and cross-platform offerings - but it has tended not to pay sufficient attention to the profound cultural and social changes associated with pluralism as a social reality (while not reifying cultural diversity as static). There is a need to move into a post-Habermasian approach here: a first principle here is that of self-representation and 'presence' (as Anne Phillips has called it). There is a need to ensure the presence of those most disenfranchised from the political process. There is also a need to cultivate a diversity of voices through 'practices of toleration' (Bernard Williams), providing access to self-representation for minority groups. Such a communicative ethics would need to centre on the cultivation of a reciprocity of presentation; a complex cultural dialogue (Seyla ben-Habib).

But this does not necessarily imply the resolution of differences towards social reconciliation (as Chantal Mouffe warns); this would signal an end point of overcoming pluralism in favour of a new unified culture. Instead, the process remains an ever-ongoing, unresolved one. Further, the dialogical mechanisms should not be limited to reasoned argument; there is an important role here for affect and emotion, too, and an opportunity to harness broadcasting's narrative and imaginative forms as well. Broadcasting has a power to relativise, offering its audiences a new sensitivity to cultural difference and interconnection.

But how can such visions be realised - through institutional design, that is, the architecture of appropriate PSB institutions? Any formal ideal that a single comprehensive public sphere could be developed seems to be misguided - subordinate social groups have repeatedly needed to constitute themselves in subaltern counterpublics: alternative public spheres. This also allows such groups to speak in their own voices, their own languages. But this need not preclude the existence of a more comprehensive public arena where members even of these groups may engage with one another; a truly public culture requires the bringing together of minoritarian communities, offering an interconnection of the various counter-public spheres. In the contemporary media environment, it is not enough to be satisfied with a proliferation of micro-public spheres.

Different media (broadcast, niche, narrowcast) and structures (network, point-to-point) must be brought together in an institutional design that may support this. The BBC offers a (but certainly not the best, or the only) model here. By way of a summary, Georgina offers five potential structural forms of mediated communication and exchange, then, which each contribute to a politics of complex cultural dialogue and mutual cultural recognition:

  • majority media forms hosting divergent and contesting minority perspectives, via universal, mass broadcast channels (e.g. current affairs, talk shows, TV debates, etc.);
  • minorities speaking to majorities and to other minorities, via mass channels as well as the Internet, in inter-cultural communication (e.g. minority programmes on mass channels, access programmes, etc.);
  • minorities speaking to other minorities, or themselves, via niche media, radio, video, satellite TV, and the Net, in intra-cultural communication which also transcends such minority cultures, however (e.g. SBS, Zee TV, and segmented media output);
  • territorially-based local/regional community networks (e.g. local government e-democracy);
  • issue-based, non-territorial communities of interest, especially via the Net through participatory, decentred, point-to-point architectures (e.g. organised Net activism).

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