The mass media is constantly creating a narrative of the nation that
none of us can see where its going or see the shape of it. But what
we are concerned to do is to sustain an effective dialogue. That
seems to me the great challenge: how do we maintain a dialogue
across the fragments that are now part of our nation?¹
It should be the arena of our shared public conversation on who we
are and what kind of world we want to hand on to future
generations...on this much depends, not least the future of Britain
as a free and gracious society.²
The BBC makes programmes for the whole TV audience: its a
The notion of a National Conversation has become popular in recent years as a
way of envisaging how we speak to each other on issues of national concern
and form an understanding of the other people in our society. An effective
National Conversation is considered essential for a healthy democracy and public
service broadcasters increasingly see themselves as playing a vital role in
mediating that Conversation.
Channel 4 will contribute to the democratic debate as the place
where interrogative and free spirited minds can both enrich and
challenge the assumptions of modern Britain, and connect to its past
We also believe the BBC is an important builder of social capital,
seeking to increase social cohesion and tolerance by enabling the
UK's many communities to talk to themselves and each other about
what they hold in common and how they differ.
These descriptions of the role of public service broadcasting extend beyond the
famous Reithian mission to inform, educate and entertain. They lay claim to a
higher civic purpose to promote a democratic and inclusive society.
But if the mission now is to build social capital and connect people to each other,
important questions arise about the nature of the National Conversation that
public service broadcasters are mediating through their programmes. Who is
setting the agenda for this Conversation and how? What topics get discussed?
Whose voices are heard and whose remain silent? Is there an onus on
broadcasters to ensure everyone gets an equal chance to participate?
These questions have become more urgent in the light of growing concerns about
citizenship, national identity and the segregation of communities along economic
and ethnic lines. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, the future of public
service broadcasting is also under scrutiny as the BBC approaches the renewal of
its current charter and ITV considers its post-analogue future when it may no
longer have to comply with its existing public service obligations. It therefore
seems an appropriate time to take a more detailed look at how the actual
practice of programme-making can fulfil the high-minded aspirations described
by public service broadcasters above.