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Diversity in the Media – The Twin Challenge

David Lammy MP, Minister for Culture
POLIS lecture, London College of Communication
18th October 2006

1. Good evening.

2. I was delighted to be invited to speak to you this evening. I’ve a strong personal interest in this area, I serve the most ethnically diverse constituency in Europe, and this day is particularly resonant for the British media as it marks the 84th anniversary of the founding of the BBC .

3. Now I know that when politicians are asked to talk about the media, and vice versa, the conversation can be less than complimentary.

4. The American sage H.L. Mencken advised members of the press that the proper relationship between a journalist and politician is that between a dog and a lamppost.

5. And the attitude of some politicians is brilliantly characterised, I think, by Tom Stoppard in Night and Day. Stoppard’s character Ruth sums up a mood that you might recognise when she says:

“I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”

6. I want to try and avoid that kind of negative stereotype this evening. I firmly believe that the media an important role to play in a strong and vibrant civil society.

7. And I can’t think of a more appropriate time to talk about that role, and the challenges of diversity in the media, than during Black History Month.

8. For the past eighteen years Black History Month has helped us to relate our past so we might better understand the present and, it is hoped, navigate a better future.

9. Next year we will commemorate and celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade by the British government. And Random House will shortly be publishing a collection of poetry called “Unheard Voices”. Reading the surviving first hand accounts of what it was to be a slave, even two centuries distant, shakes us to our very core. It illustrates the power of words to move us in profound ways.

10. And, of course, the power of those words to move men’s minds was clear to people two hundred years ago. That’s why activists did so much to record, print and distribute slave narratives in support of abolition. And it is why the profiteers from human misery tried so hard to keep slaves silent.

11. The power of words to challenge tradition, to open up new horizons, to create new hope, helps explain why progressives value freedom of expression so highly.

12. But more than this, those on the Left have always recognised the importance of equipping people with the tools to make the most of those freedoms. From literacy classes to libraries, we have always valued not just notional freedoms, but real opportunities for people from all parts of society to take part in a national conversation.

13. And that is what I want to focus on today – the need for all of us to contribute to a shared national discussion.

14. This is the twin challenge of diversity in the media. First, how to take advantage of the potential for new voices and new outlets in the media landscape without fragmenting society into self-referential groups, uninformed of one another, living parallel lives.

15. The second challenge, which I see as part of the answer to the first, is the ongoing mission to ensure that everyone not only has the equal right to be heard but is heard, regardless of class, wealth or status.

Challenges in context

16. How we meet those challenges are vital to the future of our society. The media form an important industry; worth well over £10 billion a year to the economy. Its place as the first draft of history guarantees that it will shape our understanding of the past, of the present and our hopes for the future.

17. It’s important that we see these developments and their impact in their context, because this hasn’t been the first media revolution and it surely won’t be the last.

18. The political and economic revolutions of the eighteenth century were accompanied by a transformation in the media. The tools of production – pens, paper and the printing press - and the tools of consumption – literacy – were placed in the hands of many.

19. In England alone, book production increased fourfold over the course of the seventeenth century. It became possible for writers, like Daniel Defoe, to live off their profits rather than rely on patronage. Pamphleteers, like Paine, Mill and, later, Mary Wollstonecraft, demanded democratic rights.

20. Books, magazines and periodicals, debated in coffee houses and pubs, fuelled the rapid diffusion of scientific, economic and political thought.

21. In the nineteenth century, the development of mass literacy – insisted on by progressive reformers – meant skilled labour and enhanced prosperity the nation.

22. And today, just as the technical and social developments of the industrial revolution re-shaped the world, we all have to think hard about the changes to taking place across society. We need to understand how what the Director-General of the CBI Richard Lambert calls the third industrial revolution is reshaping our media, economic and political landscape.

The new media age

23. The digitisation of content, allied with massively increased bandwidth and storage capacity, has radically changed both the economics of media production and the range of content available. The change is all around us:

  • Ten years ago, there were around 40 television channels available in the UK. And around 90% of us watched just four. By 2005, there were 354 channels in total, with 120 of these free-to-air.
  • Ten years ago no-one had sent a text message. Last year over 35 billion were sent in the UK.
  • And ten years ago, no-one had even heard of a weblog. Now 70,000 blogs are created each day.

24. The true intensity of this transformation is taking place among the young. The generation for whom the ability to create their own content and to communicate with friends, family and the rest of the world are as everyday as television and radio were for me growing up.

25. And the communications revolution continues to expand the boundaries – and change the nature – of political conversation.

26. There’s an incredible photograph of David Lloyd George talking with a group of people, campaigning for the People’s Budget - which introduced early pensions and unemployment benefit that lifted millions from poverty - during the 1910 General Election campaign. As a politician, what struck me was that, less than a hundred years ago, all those who’d seen and heard Lloyd George speak would have needed to be within ear-shot.

27. Of course, that changed for ever with the dawn of the broadcast age. In a few short years the set-piece interview between politician and political journalist became for the majority of the public their main connection with politicians.

28. But that media landscape familiar from my childhood has been transformed over the last few years. It’s easy to forget that the first 24 hour news channel only began broadcasting little over fifteen years ago to just a handful of homes. Today, there are more than seven 24 hour news channels that have a focus on the UK.

29. But I believe that the even more dramatic transformation is being driven by the internet. The ability to choose, create and share your comment on the events of the day with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Because today people no longer just watch the news, they record it and they write about it themselves.

30. And for me, this democratisation of the media is potentially incredibly positive. The progressive challenge in the past has been to enable the marginalised to make their voices heard to the many. Today, people all over the country, and the world, are finding ways to express themselves. To have their say. To take part in public debate.

31. So, I think we’re left with a compelling question when what could be a genie’s lamp of choice and control that’s shifting power from entrenched elites into the hands of the public, is accompanied by the suspicion that, far from granting us our wishes, we’ve opened Pandora’s Box.

A Genie’s Lamp or Pandora’s Box?

32. The problem for news providers is the spiralling effect of audience fragmentation as viewers and readers with more choice seek out alternative forms of entertainment. As consumption declines so too does revenue, companies can afford to spend less on content, leading to steeper decline.

33. Take for example the newspaper industry. One French media owner predicted only last month that newspapers have just ten years left in their current form. Now, whether you subscribe to that viewpoint or not, the pace of change – and the scale of the challenges that it brings with it - is there for us all to see.

34. Over the last twenty years regular newspaper readership has declined from 80% of the population to under 60% today. Young people who use the internet are more than a fifth less likely to read either a local or national newspaper.

35. The response of some might be to argue tough luck. The customer is always right.

36. But the media is far more than profit and loss. It serves us not just as consumers, but also as citizens.

37. And I think there is a legitimate concern that the fragmentation of the media will contribute to a corresponding fragmentation of the public realm unless we are careful.

38. One of the distinctive features of news is the way it addresses the individual as part of a group. Traditionally these imagined communities have been geographic in nature – take my local paper the Tottenham Independent - but there’s also news that caters for specific languages, faiths or tastes. The fundamental point is that the news media not only serve existing communities but also helps create them.

39. But if we just stop at the media that serves your ethic or religious community or your pre-existing point of view; what a bad place that would be.

40. A healthy democracy requires access, participation and interaction on the part of its citizens. I believe that it requires an ‘encounter culture’, in which public life is enriched by encounters between people with different views, experiences and backgrounds.

41. In a society which is becoming rapidly less homogenous finding those places where we can encounter one another and begin the long road to understanding becomes even more important.

42. Because pluralism calls on us to re-affirm the importance of the civic institutions that we hold in common together. Because the welfare state means we have a responsibility to recognise that the health of our public services are as reliant on the actions of others as they are ourselves. Because democracy means that we have the right to explore, debate and choose between competing visions of the future.

43. So we must have somewhere where we can come together and discuss matters of common concern. The ancient Greek Polis had the agora, we, for all its imperfections, have the news media.

44. So the point that ‘You are what you read’ is a serious one.

45. The fragmentation of the media is taking place within the context of a public that is becoming more diverse itself. So the need for the news media to act as a civic forum, a channel of communication and public debate has never been more pressing.

46. Let’s not fool ourselves that we’re leaving some kind of golden age of when most people earnestly discussed last night’s edition of The World in Action or Panorama over the breakfast table.

47. But, as personal choice and control increases we should be concerned if communities of interest replace responsibility, that the ego drives out the egalitarian and the Daily We becomes the Daily Me. An increasingly competitive marketplace could see comment and opinion replace fact and argument as people seek out information that stokes the harsh fires of prejudice.

Meeting the challenge of diversity

48. So how do we respond to this challenge as a nation? How can we ensure that the simultaneous growth in the diversity of the media and the public itself, leads not to fragmentation but a richer national conversation?

49. I think there are three areas that we should look at as starter for a real debate about this.

Plurality of discussion

50. And the first of these is plurality of discussion. In recent months there has been much debate around this – from the cartoons of Mohammed, to decisions made about who should be interviewed on Newsnight – and it is an important issue.

51. Let me be clear, I see no contradiction between campaigning journalism, plurality of voices, and respect for others.

52. At their best new players can open up previously neglected spaces, highlight new issues, and give a voice to those who would otherwise not be heard.

53. Just think of the impact that The Voice newspaper has had on Britain’s Black community. It did everything a newspaper should. It helped give Black Britons a sense of pride and belonging. It campaigned ceaselessly against injustice. With indefatigable campaigners like Bernie Grant, it helped push political issues and Black voices from the margins to the centre of public debate. And it wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions of Black Britons themselves.

54. What it didn’t do was seek to cut itself off from wider society. It demanded entry, not isolation. It told the news from a perspective - but with a shared interest in the existing political community. And it was committed to plural, if not impartial, comment and reporting.

55. I think we can draw a simple, yet telling, contrast. Last year’s riots in the Lozells area of Birmingham were stoked, if not started, by pirate radio. Commentators, who took no responsibility for their actions, who had no interest in discovering the truth and who no commitment to plural debate, spread fear, anger and hatred.

56. New media outlets don’t lead to segregation if they join the conversation. So they need to recognise their immense responsibility to helping create and form a common community beyond their readers.

57. I believe this is particularly important for the news media who seek to serve migrant communities. It’s important and beneficial to wider society that these media are available. But it is equally important that they not only report on the country of origin – be it Ireland, Poland or Pakistan – but also on Britain. To encourage a sense of community beyond that of their audience they must take an interest in our common life, history and institutions.

58. And just as it is right that the specialist press should be committed to plural discussion, so too should our national media. At its best, the media seeks to open up discussion – not close it down.

59. So when people ask should the BBC or Al Jazeera interview those who seek to spread mistrust and division through a twisted and perverted interpretation of Islam then the answer is, yes they should.

60. Because, a commitment to freedom of expression means exposing the views of people like Abu Izzadeen or Nick Griffin for what they are. Explaining that just as Abu Izzadeen doesn’t speak for all Muslims, the BNP doesn’t for all white people. Far from it. And it means balancing their voices with those of rational and reasoned argument.

61. And let me make one more point on this issue of plurality of discussion: freedom of expression does not make respect for one another redundant. It makes it more important.

62. Increasing diversity also means that major news media outlets need to act with sensitivity and respect for difference. The decision to publish cartoons of the prophet Mohammed wasn’t a shining defence of free speech. It ignored the power relations in society. The voice of the majority can shout louder than the minority. It was deliberately designed to cause offence. I’m pleased that, on the whole, the media in Britain act with intelligence and sensitivity – in the same way as it reacted to the bombings in London last year in a responsible fashion.

63. Freedom does not mean regard for others no longer matters. Having the right to be offensive, does not mean that it is right to be offensive.

Empowering the individual

64. The second issue that I want to discuss is the importance of empowering people in the new information age.

65. Whilst it is crucial that we maintain that freedom of expression, I think it is also important that we empower consumers to make their own, informed, choices.

66. Because to me, real empowerment comes not just the freedom to read anything you like, but also from a true understanding of the viewpoint behind the coverage that you are reading, watching or listening to.

67. Rather than making decisions on behalf of readers, viewers and listeners, we must give young people, in particular, the tools to decide for themselves whether a source is credible or whether an opinion is valid.

68. Just as we have spent generations teaching young people to critique Shakespeare and Dickens, I believe that in a new information age, the ability to put opinions and news coverage in a wider perspective is increasingly important.

69. This becomes increasingly significant when we consider the ready availability of global media. As many British readers pointed out at the time, the thinly-veiled prejudice in some US coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina - white families reported as “salvaging” vital supplies from shops, while black families were reported as “looting” from the shelves – exemplifies just the kind of critical interpretation required from the modern, culturally-aware consumer.

70. And there is some good news here. Young people are the most discerning consumers of all of us in many spheres. They are the generation that has grown up in a world of choice, of branding, of ever more sophisticated marketing techniques.

71. So the challenge is to ensure that young people can apply this level of awareness and perceptiveness to their use of the media.

72. We’re already seeing examples of “citizen journalism”. As the tools of journalism are placed in the hands of the public, people who aren’t professional journalists are playing an increasingly active role in collecting, reporting and analysing the news. This is potentially an incredibly exciting event. But we have to remember that citizenship is not just about rights but also carries responsibilities.

73. I think the development of citizen journalism means we all need to think about what kind of responsibilities come with the power to publish. This certainly isn’t about regulation but education has a role to play.

Equality of Opportunity

74. The third and final area that I want to mention today is that of equality of opportunity. This is a theme that I constantly return to – but it is one of enduring importance.

75. New findings from my Department’s research shows that there are real difficulties for young people from less well off backgrounds getting on to the first rung of the ladder. Yes, this is partly because of persistent educational inequalities – and I am as passionate about that as anybody. But the fact is that getting into the industry often relies on doing unpaid work for a year, or sometimes even more.

76. DEMOS has shown recently that success in the creative economy can often reflect the strength of people’s networks as much as their abilities – and that can mitigate against those from BME backgrounds in particular.

77. Do we really think that people from less well off or minority ethnic backgrounds are somehow less capable?

78. I certainly don’t. I believe there is talent left unfulfilled that we are all missing out on.

79. But this isn’t important just for the sake of those who would like a career in the media. It is an important part of making our representative democracy more representative.

80. Because when people peer in to the Westminster village, they need to see that people who look and sound like them there.

81. We need to avoid – at all costs - the sense that politics, and the national conversation that it facilitates, is somehow the preserve of certain groups in society. No-one should feel that politics is not for them.

82. We saw how divisive this could be with policing in the 1980s, communities that felt distant from their representatives. And where troubles exist today I think it is because we haven’t gone far enough, fast enough.

83. People’s hopes and aspirations should be reflected in politics, and truly representative institutions – from the House of Commons, to the media – are needed to make this happen.

84. So we need to be more imaginative about how to achieve real equality of opportunity. We need to find ways of putting people from all backgrounds back in control of their own life chances. Because it matters to them. And it matters to anyone who cares about the health of our democracy.

Conclusion

85. These three areas – plurality of discussion, empowerment through increasing media literacy, and equality of opportunity – are, I think, some important starting points for a discussion on how to meet the challenge of diversity in the British media.

86. They are, of course, part of a much broader picture. Politicians have their own responsibilities for supporting that national conversation, through finding new ways to connect with the public.

87. While some Members of Parliament are getting better, as an institution we’re still too slow. We need to move beyond the existing narrowly defined channels of communication.

88. That we’ve been slow to adapt to the possibilities of digital technologies probably isn’t all that surprising given that it took until 1989 to allow cameras into the Commons.

89. On a personal level I find my website and email are some of the most important channels for communicating with people, and I podcast regularly as a way of communicating more directly with my constituents. And I think it’s great that this lecture can reach a wider audience the same way.

90. But precisely because of this digital revolution, and the challenges that I have discussed today, the media has its own important role to play:

  • To enrich not diminish the national conversation as new voices enter the mainstream;
  • To increase engagement with the political process;
  • And to enhance people’s sense of identity and belonging.

91. I think we can be optimistic as we look forward. But we also need to acknowledge that the transition will be rough and, for some, uncomfortable. It means understanding that with new possibilities come new obligations. And acknowledging that because we can do something doesn’t mean that we always should.

92. We have to have the courage – and the respect for all our citizens – to know that they will be attracted to light, rather than darkness. This is the premise of the genuine freedom of expression that the future can offer.

93. We of course need ‘mainstream media’ and they must represent all of our interests and identities. We also need minority media, and they are inevitable. And we need to uphold our frameworks against religious and racial discrimination. We cannot prevent the further fragmentation of interests and tastes, but we must be aware that it has its own natural limits. Build the agora, and they will continue to come.

94. Because what we need now, most of all, is understanding. The answers to many of the questions that we face aren’t definitive but emergent. They’ll only be addressed through dialogue, and sometimes heated, debate. The conversation must involve everyone who accepts that it proceeds on the basis of respect; and the news media must be right at the heart.

95. This is, ultimately, about not only meeting the challenge of diversity, but seizing the potential it presents. But doing this means renewing our commitment to living together in our shared community.

96. Thank you.

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