The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

The Active Digital Citizen

Lord Puttnam argues that the future of public service media for children is inextricably linked to media literacy education and the ability of the audience to think critically about the content they consume online.

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.

Consequently, any future we plan for public service media must start in organised educational settings. So, how do we do that?

At the moment, the Government has a tendency to focus on computing education rather than digital media literacy, but basic digital skills are not enough to create savvy audiences (and citizens) of the future. From this point of view, the Department of Education appears to be struggling to anticipate the implications of the technological challenges of the 21st century. Children must understand the purposes of the technology they use, have a critical understanding of the content it delivers, have the skills and competencies to participate creatively, and a reasonable, age-appropriate understanding of potential outcomes, including potential harms.

The focus on computer science, rather than critical digital media literacy skills, is important because numerous pieces of evidence suggest insufficient progress had been made on improving digital media literacy in the UK. For example, according to The Digital Life Skills Company, only two per cent of children aged 9 to 16 have the skills needed to critically evaluate news.[1]While we may think about primary school children as being ‘digital natives’, we could not reasonably call them “critical digital natives”. In 2021, the UK ranked tenth out of 35 countries across wider Europe according to the Open Society Institute Media Literacy Index.[2]

During the evidentiary hearings for the House of Lords select committee on the impact of digital technologies on democracy, we heard positive examples from abroad, particularly from the Baltic countries, as to how digital media literacy can be promoted to young people. For instance, we learned that the Finnish government have worked for some decades to make sure that media literacy is part of every child’s education. This has included investment in resources, most notably in teacher training.[3] Similarly, Estonia is one of only three EU states where digital competence frameworks must be taken into consideration while developing Initial Teacher Education programmes. The education strategy here is known as the Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020, which sets “A digital focus in lifelong learning” as one of five key policy aims.[4] The government supplies kindergartens with IT and programming equipment and training, and has assessment criteria in digital competencies at both primary and secondary education level.

Within the UK Government, our committee found it to be extremely unclear where the responsibility for many of these issues actually falls. When it comes to better digital media literacy, and indeed the place of public service media within future strategies for its development, there is a need for much greater cross-departmental collaboration and communication.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) oversees digital policy and is the lead department on the Online Harms White Paper, one of the major strands of which is to improve digital and media literacy.[5] The White Paper also identifies digital literacy as an area that the new Online Harms Regulator will cover. However, the Department for Education administers education policy in England, with devolved administrations taking responsibility in the other nations of the UK, and this includes the way in which digital media literacy is incorporated into the school curriculum.

Ofcom has a statutory duty to promote media literacy under Section 11 of the Communications Act 2003. Ofcom interpret this as providing an evidence base of UK adults’ and children’s understanding and use of electronic media and share this evidence base with stakeholders.[6] They do not appear to run any digital media literacy programmes, apart from the Making Sense of Media programme, which aims to bring organisations working in the digital media literacy space together.[7]

Many bodies have called for the various media literacy initiatives to be made more cohesive. The Cairncross Review into the sustainability of journalism in the UK recommended that the Government should develop a media literacy strategy, working with Ofcom, the online platforms, news publishers and broadcasters, voluntary organisations and academics, to identify gaps in provision and opportunities for more collaborative working.[8] Public Service Media Organisations should be among the leading voices in these conversations.

In light of all the evidence that was placed before us, and the issues I have laid out in this essay, I think a number of the considered recommendations we made in our House of Lords Select Committee report last June (Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust) would be a good place to start as we map out a plan for the future of PSM.

Our report suggested that Ofsted, in partnership with the Department for Education, Ofcom, the ICO and subject associations, should commission a large-scale programme of evaluation of digital media literacy initiatives. This should: (a) Review the international evidence of what has worked best in digital media literacy initiatives; (b) Map existing digital media initiatives across the UK, inside and outside of schools, aimed at all age groups; (c) Commission research to evaluate those initiatives that appear most successful; (d) Report in time for the lessons learned to be implemented, at scale, and as soon as possible.

The Department for Education should review the school curriculum to ensure that pupils are equipped with all the skills they will need to navigate their way through an ever more complex media world. Critical digital media literacy skills have to be embedded across the wider curriculum, and most teachers will need significant support through CPD to help them achieve this.
Public Service Media needs to be part of these discussions to help develop projects and initiatives that will empower vastly improved digital literacy among young children. We have already witnessed some really useful initiatives from the PSBs – just look at the value children and their parents have extracted from the BBC’s educational programming during the pandemic, and the kind of resources that are now available via BBC Teach. Collaborations between PSBs and digital platforms (like the Channel 4 News/Facebook partnership) are clearly a step in the right direction, but none go far enough.

As I said when I chaired the inquiry into the future of public service television in 2016 – “public service broadcasting is a noble 20th century concept”.[9] In many ways the spirit of that concept has been best exemplified during the grimmest days of the COVID 19 crisis, when people across the four nations turned to trusted public-service voices for reliable information, and to local programming for familiarity and comfort. However, if this sense of noble purpose is to be maintained, PSM must be supported by Government to keep pace with the rapidly evolving media ecosystem. This is particularly true when it comes to children’s PSM, as young people everywhere increasingly migrate towards digital gaming, online social-media platforms and short-form video apps.

As I have made clear over the course of this piece, the first place to start in protecting the future of PSM is to invest in initiatives that will help our young people to think more critically about the content they consume, especially online. Better educational programmes for digital literacy must be established; there are great dangers involved in passing the buck from department to department, and ultimately ignoring the problem.

Beyond the pressing need for a more cohesive digital media literacy strategy, Government must work with broadcasters to think outside the box (literally!) when it comes to the delivery of PSM to young people. Imagine a new public service platform for this generation: one that escapes the shackles of YouTube, Facebook and TikTok. How we also make it compelling is an altogether different matter – but surely not insuperable!

We need to provide children with the tools they’ll require to negotiate this new media landscape, and think about how PSBs can be both their compass, and a reliable and trusted destination.

[1] [accessed 27 April 2021]; House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, (June 2020):
[2] Media Literacy Index 2021. [accessed 27 April 2021]
[3] [accessed 27 April 2021]; House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust, (June 2020): (Q 150)
[4] Republic of Estonia Ministry of Education and Research, ‘The Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020’: [accessed 28 April 2020]; NESTA, ‘Digital Frontrunners Spotlight: Estonia’: ers-spotlight-estonia/ [accessed 28 April 2021]
[5] Online Harms White Paper - GOV.UK ( [accessed 27 April 2021]
[6] About media literacy - Ofcom [accessed 27 April 2021]
[7] Making Sense of Media - Ofcom [accessed 27 April 2021]
[8] The Cairncross Review, A Sustainable Future for Journalism (February 2019) p 90: https://assets. DCMS_Cairncross_Review_.pdf [accessed 28 April 2021]
[9] A Future for Public Service Television: Content And Platforms in a Digital World: A report on the future of public service television in the UK in the 21st Century, Goldsmiths University of London, 2016.



What people are saying...

Discuss this article in the forums.

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.

Lord Puttnam's Profile

The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)