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Who are today’s content regulators?

Who are today’s content regulators?

Andrew Graystone looks at the new state of content regulation in light of Gary Lineker’s dispute with the BBC. 13/03/2023

The wood–paneled Council Chamber in Broadcasting House is the traditional meeting place of the BBC’s governing body. One wall is dominated by a portrait of the Corporation’s patrician founder, Lord Reith. On the opposite wall is a wooden carving of the BBC’s coat of arms, adopted in March 1927. It bears the single Latin word “quaecumque” meaning “whatever”. The word is a reference to the words of Paul in Philippians 4 verse 8: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable––if anything is excellent or praiseworthy––think about such things.” Reith looks sternly across at the plaque, as if to remind the BBC of its enduring purpose. 

Those who know it well will not be surprised that the BBC is marking its centenary year with an almighty and self–destructive row. It has been coming for some time – a consequence not just of political disagreement but of the shifting tectonic plates of broadcasting itself. Lying behind the spat between the BBC management and Gary Lineker is a change in the relationship between the people who make content for TV and other media, and the people who consume it. 

Every piece of communication content, from a television documentary to a tweet, has an author and an end–user. This is no less true today than it was when the staff of the BBC numbered four and the audience less than fifty thousand. When communication happens, when someone switches on a TV set, the author and the end–user enter into an unspoken agreement. The people who produce content take responsibility for what they produce, and the people who consume it take responsibility for how they consume. 

In the case of a television programme, the producers, presenters and the hundreds of  behind–the–scenes staff make a commitment to create content that is truthful and made to the highest production standards they are capable of. They must also be transparent about a programme’s genre: drama is clearly labeled as drama, news as news, comment as comment, entertainment as entertainment, and so on. 

On the receiving end, viewers commit to applying some discretion to the content; we should think actively about what we watch, just as we are careful and planned about the food we eat.  This has been the implicit contract since broadcasting began a hundred years ago. The relationship was well understood on both sides.  The soubriquet “Auntie Beeb,” coined in the late 1940s, summed up the familial, trusting if somewhat prudish nature of the relationship. 

As broadcasting diversified and commercial interests became more prominent, a range of regulatory bodies were established as gatekeepers between broadcasters and audiences. From the early days of radio, the relationship between broadcasters and ‘listeners–in’, as they were called, was hosted and governed by regulatory bodies such as the BBC Governors, the Broadcasting Standards Council, and later OFCOM. It was the intermediaries who determined what was fit to broadcast, and what was fit to hear, watch or consume. 

The last few years have seen radical changes in broadcast media: the mass availability of broadband; the arrival of subscription services; the omni–presence of social media. Whereas production and distribution used to be complex, technical and expensive, in the digital economy the broadcast is accessible and low cost. 

There are two outcomes. The first is that every individual is a possible content creator. The second is that creators are now in direct contact with end users. They no longer need to process the content through an intermediary, and in the digital era the regulatory paradigm has been challenged to the point of breakdown. Most broadcast material no longer passes through regulating intermediaries. Highly–governed terrestrial broadcasters such as the BBC are now the exception rather than the rule. 

And, of course, different kinds of platforms converge. Large institutions like the BBC have thousands of employees, sometimes acting as an employee, and sometimes (on social media, for example) as a ‘private’ citizen. One of the results of disintermediation is that that the regulatory paradigm has all but broken down. 

“Nation shall speak peace unto nation,” said the BBC in its motto adopted in the 1930s. But they surely never imagined that individual would be able to speak to individual quite so directly, without the priestly agency of an established and regulated broadcaster. Gary Lineker may be subject to the BBC’s standards of impartiality on a Saturday night. But on a Sunday morning he has a platform, through social media, that allows him to speak practically face to face with an even bigger audience. Scores of former BBC employees, including distinguished journalists, have jumped ship over the past decade, preferring the freedom of an unregulated environment. 

But operating outside a regulated space doesn’t relieve the producer or presenter of their moral and social responsibilities. If anything, it places more of the responsibility on the individual to determine what is noble, right, pure and admirable. We must recognize again that the broadcast media is a moral and ethical space, and the role of regulation will be complex. Just saying “whatever” won’t do! The person who makes content is no longer a college of professional TV and radio producers based largely in West London. It is all of us; anyone who has access to a smart phone and a broadband connection. Whatever we make, whether it is a TV documentary or a tweet, a podcast or a TikTok, we have a responsibility to ask the basic producers’ questions; is this truthful? Is it the best quality I am capable of? Who might see this, and what impact might it have on them? 

The person who consumes content is all of us too – sitting at home, or at work, or on the top deck of a bus with earphones in. We have to learn to discern between a TV sports presenter giving an expert analysis of a football match, and a passionate individual making a political comment. We have to remember to discriminate between what is news and what is comment; between what is commercially or politically driven, and what is impartial. We have to decide for ourselves who is worth listening to, and what we will do with what they say. Neither government nor broadcasters nor BBC Trustees can do that job for us. 

We are all regulators now. 


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Image of Gary Lineker by Fred Duval on Shutterstock
Image of BBC microphone by seeshooteatrepeat on Shutterstock

Andrew Graystone

Andrew Graystone

Andrew is the Public Engagement Lead at Theos. He has been a journalist and commentator, a BBC TV producer, and has also written and presented many programmes for BBC radio. He is the author of ‘Bleeding for Jesus’ (DLT, 2021), and ‘Faith Hope and Mischief’ (Canterbury, 2020).

Watch, listen to or read more from Andrew Graystone

Posted 14 March 2023



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