The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

The Active Digital Citizen

In this introductory article, Lord Puttnam sets out the main themes he will be addressing in a longer article, which we will be sharing with you in April.

In 2016, I chaired an inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting organised by Goldsmiths University. The inquiry’s report was published on the 18th of June that year, just one week before the Brexit referendum. In its Introduction, I noted how virulent the public debate had been over the preceding months and how our need for trusted information had never been greater.

Four years later I chaired a House of Lords select committee on the impact of digital technologies on democracy. The report from that committee was published last June. In its Foreword, I also talked about trust. This time I argued that the public had lost all sense of what (and who) to believe in the digital world, and that this disintegration of trust was coming dangerously close to imperilling our democracy.

It is striking how many parallels can now be found between these reports, both of which dealt in separate ways with our constantly evolving media ecology and how best to future proof it for the next generation.

Indeed, the type of future we projected for public service broadcasters back in 2016 is now upon us. In the meantime, the UK has left the EU, Donald Trump has come and gone from the White House, and the world has lived through twelve months of a gruelling pandemic. Thanks to this most recent crisis, public service broadcasters, and public service news programming in particular, have been recognised as having a renewed sense of purpose within our national life. However, lockdowns and school closures associated with the onslaught of COVID 19 have also meant that we are more worried than ever about the amount of time our young people are spending on digital screens: What are they watching? Who is acting as a gatekeeper? How well do any of us understand the digital infrastructure in which so much of their time is spent? And, how can young minds learn to recognise the difference between what’s true, what’s designed to be addictive or, worst of all, something designed to manipulate them?

What’s troubling, is that we’re now seeing a number of our earlier fears played out, particularly as young people (and their parents) grapple with a digital ecosystem they are poorly equipped to navigate. The lines between that ecosystem and public service broadcasters are now irretrievably blurred – especially for children, many of whom will grow up without ever learning to differentiate between forms of on-screen information, and the motives of those that promote it.

This means we need to more deeply consider how best to distribute public service media to children. Rather than adapting old models, we’ll be required to invent new and innovative ways to deliver it to them. We will need to learn to meet them where they are, rather than wait for them to knock on our door.

A crucial part of all this will be equipping young people with an intuitive level of media literacy, sufficient to tell the difference between what is trusted and safe and what is not. A child’s ability to think critically about what they are watching – even at the most basic, rudimentary level – will help ensure public service media does not get drowned out in a sea of online noise.

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By Lord David Puttnam

Lord David Puttnam is the Chair of Atticus Education, an online education company founded in 2012 that delivers audio-visual seminars to students all over the world. In addition to this, he is a member of the House of Lords where he pursues an active role in a variety of areas, from educational and environmental issues to digital skills.

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)