The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

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

Today’s Children, Tomorrow’s Voters

Patrick Barwise and Peter York consider why the presence of public service media at scale has helped to protect functioning democracies from the dangers of disinformation.

In many ways, children have never grown up faster and never been savvier. To varying degrees – depending as much on household income as on age – they are all digital natives. But mastery of technology is not the same as understanding the nature of the content it brings - who created it, and why? should I believe what it says? – or the issues around data security and privacy.

In an age of increasingly sophisticated disinformation, much of it spread through virtually deregulated social media, we need both to tackle online harm and to build the public’s resilience to lies and false conspiracy theories. A key part of this is to develop children’s understanding of two key issues. First, which information sources they should and should not trust. Secondly, at least at a basic level, how their online activity passively generates personal data and how those data are used and, potentially, misused.

In eight years’ time, today’s ten-year-olds will be voters. Ensuring their media and digital literacy will be crucial to the long-term health of our society and democracy.

We’ve learnt a lot over the last year. How things that seemed rock-solid can be destroyed in a matter of months – like all those old familiar names on the High Street. How people can rise to a challenge – the NHS, vaccine scientists – and just how low  some other people can go – the mob who broke into the Capitol Building in Washington and the online conspiracy theorists who told people across the world that vaccines would put spy chips inside you or make you infertile.

We learnt what we could do without - fancy offices, luxury shopping, frequent flying, or face to face meetings - and what we couldn’t. Central to what we couldn’t do without was public service. Public service everything. The NHS, of course, and the care system generally. Welfare benefits of all kinds. And education: we needed people who could help with useful and trustworthy information and contacts, as well as money and food banks. People who could teach us to survive. The Government moved from Austerity to Public Big Spender because we needed it.

One of the things we realised we desperately needed was real news – un-fake news – and reliable advice in dangerous times. That meant, above all, the public service broadcasters, especially the BBC, whose news audiences shot up and stayed up. We needed to know what was really going on, we even wanted to watch the official Covid press conferences. We wanted trusted people to distract our children – suddenly at home – and to help educate them. Everyone agrees – in some cases through gritted teeth - that the BBC has had a good pandemic in all these ways.

What’s surprising is that anyone should find this remotely remarkable. The BBC, more than any other broadcaster – even the other PSBs (C4, ITV and Channel 5) – has explicit public purposes: a mission that goes way beyond the profit-maximising business of pure commercial broadcasting. Its public purposes are an integral part of its contract with the nation -  the Charter and the funding deal - and the basis for its regulation by Ofcom.

The BBC doesn’t have to be dragged kicking and screaming to sign up to its public purposes. Even at its foundation in 1922 as a commercial business to drive the take-up of radio, its mission under John Reith was to inform, educate and entertain. Ninety-nine years later, that mission and the associated public service values and culture remain.

It has always invested in high-quality, original British content for children, especially younger children. (As suggested by its nickname Auntie, it is a bit more comfortable with the under-sevens than with tweens and teens). It produces a mass of ‘fresh, live and local’ programmes for children, covering everything from wildlife to drama. In 2020, in response to the school closures, it increased production of more focused material aligned to the national curriculum.

Underlying the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain people of all ages across the UK is its role as guardian of a principle at the heart of our democracy: the need for social cohesion to maintain a consent that keeps things working without coercion.

We’ve just seen the potential consequences when that breaks down. The 6th January storming of the US Capitol showed what happens when a country is bitterly divided by contrasting beliefs. In this case, between those who believed Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election fairly and those who believed it was stolen from Donald Trump through an elaborate fraud.

The Big Steal was a lie, but tens of millions of Americans believed it, including a majority of the 74 million who had voted for Trump. Tens of millions still do and many are armed and angry. This marks an unimaginable divide that may yet make the country ungovernable. It has already fallen behind Argentina and Mongolia in the global ranking of political rights and civil liberties compiled by democracy watchdog Freedom House, with a score of 83 points out of a possible 100, on a par with Croatia, Panama and Romania. In 2010, it scored 94.[1]

The underlying US problem of not trusting government pre-dates Trump and Biden. It’s rooted in American history: its federal structure, its deep racial divides, its religiosity, its gun culture, its romanticisation of self-sufficiency and all that. But above all, its media landscape.

Unlike the BBC, America’s PSBs – PBS and NPR – were launched only after the commercial broadcasters were well established. They have never achieved the scale and impact of our PSBs. The US market is therefore dominated by commercial broadcasters who have no public service remit and are only minimally regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

US broadcast regulation was not always quite so light touch. In 1949, the Democrat-controlled FCC introduced what became known as the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide adequate coverage of important political issues and to ensure that this coverage fairly represented opposing views.
From 1969, however, President Nixon (who also weakened and fragmented PBS by cutting its funding and forcing it to devolve most of its budget to local stations) and other Republicans began attacking the broadcast networks, especially their coverage of the Vietnam War. In terms strikingly similar to some of today’s right-wing attacks on the BBC, Vice President Spiro T Agnew complained that TV network news commentators and producers ‘live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington DC or New York City,…read the same newspapers…[and] talk constantly to one another…. As with other American institutions, perhaps it is time that the networks were made more responsive to the views of the nation and responsible to the people they serve.’[2]

The Republicans never got control of the established TV networks’ news. But, in 1987, under President Reagan, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, opening the door for the launch of Fox News and MSNBC in 1996, CNN in 1980, and the growth of right-wing shock jock radio. US broadcast news has been largely partisan ever since, with audiences choosing sources that reinforce their views and largely avoiding those that do not. The resulting divisions are even greater today because of social media. At the same time, organizations such as the Media Research Center (also set up in 1987) constantly monitor and attack the ‘liberal mainstream media’.

For the last four years until this January, the US Department of Education has been headed by Betsy de Vos, a fiercely right-wing Catholic billionaire Trump appointee who doesn’t really believe in state education. She did nothing to resolve the economic, racial and religious divides that created a country with some of the Western world’s best-educated people – and some of its most astonishingly ignorant.

In the 21st century, the American media landscape has become jaw-droppingly polarised. Fox News, in particular, became central to the Donald Trump ‘base’, who love its raucous populism. In response, the competing ‘centrist’ commercial news networks CNN and MSNBC became increasingly partisan – far more so than, say, the BBC or Channel Four News.

Compared to Fox, CNN and MSNBC are absolute pillars of rectitude and rationality. But they, too, increasingly trade in opinions rather than facts – shorter, more parochial newscasts and much more time spent on partisan comments, particularly from reliably engaging liberal interviewees, rather than a carefully balanced guest list, BBC style. And with equally lively presenters who aren’t constrained by the BBC’s and other UK broadcasters’ idea of impartiality and balance. It’s more entertaining, and it’s meant to be, because American TV News and current affairs has to get ratings.

In comparison, UK broadcast news can often sound stodgy and look unglamorous. But – despite endless claims to the contrary – it remains highly trusted both in Britain (far more than the newspapers telling their readers not to trust it) and around the world. In 2020, the Reuters Institute found that the BBC was more trusted in the US than any other news source apart from local TV news.[3]

The current British broadcasting ecology reflects the BBC, in particular, because so many of its people were trained or strongly influenced by it and all broadcast news is covered by the same regulatory framework. Until recently, Sky News was – like Fox News - part of the Murdoch empire. But, in complete contrast to Fox News, its coverage has always been impartial. The UK regulation of broadcast news is, we think, by far the biggest reason for this difference.

We would argue that the broad UK consensus about the facts, largely driven by our impartial broadcast news, is an important reason why, even after Brexit, and despite the growth of social media and the continuing influence and agenda-setting of our highly politicised newspapers (dominated by those leaning to the right[4]), we don’t have societal divides on the same scale as in the USA.

Recent academic research from the University of Zürich confirms this. The researchers looked at the factors that make nations more resilient or vulnerable to disinformation and false conspiracy theories - one of the curses of the 21st century even before Covid-19. One of the five key factors they found is the presence of public service broadcasting at scale because ‘in countries with wide-reaching public service media, citizens’ knowledge about public affairs is higher compared to countries with marginalised public service media’. The UK scraped into the most resilient group, led by the Nordics. People in Southern  Europe (Spain, Italy, Greece) were more credulous. But the USA was in a category of its own, with a population ‘particularly susceptible to disinformation campaigns.’[5]

Of course, this isn’t just about media ecology, it also reflects other aspects of American exceptionalism.[6]  But it’s hard to see how the polarisation of US broadcast news since the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine has not been one of the biggest drivers of the polarisation of US society.

So we’re different from the USA, and the PSBs are a key part of that difference, part of the safeguard against a more polarised society. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen here. In fact it already is happening here, meaning that the development of social divides based on red-button emotionally–based narratives, conspiracy theories and disinformation generally is gaining ground. Ideas that once seemed mad and marginal in the David Icke sense are now believed by significant numbers in the UK.[7] The argument of our recent book The War Against the BBC is that the BBC is under sustained attack now, just when we, as a nation, need it and the other PSBs (and impartial broadcast news) more than ever.

The plan for this attack was set out by Dominic Cummings– yes that Dominic Cummings– as long ago as 2004[8] and it’s clearly and ruthlessly argued, with no pretence of a motivation other than party political advantage. It’s based on an approach developed by American political strategists who Cummings, unlike most Brits, had studied closely. Back in 2004 he argued, among other things, for constant scrutiny and undermining of the BBC (check it out, it’s happened and is still happening[9]) and for a British version of Fox News. And that, or something much closer to it than we’ve seen before, is about to happen too with the imminent launch of GB News and News UK TV - part of the Murdoch empire that gave the world… Fox News.

At a time of increasing real content and distribution costs (thanks to the US streamers like Netflix), the 2010 Coalition and 2015 Conservative governments imposed the deepest ever funding cuts on the BBC that meant its real (after inflation) public funding had already fallen by 30 per cent from 2010 to 2019. Current attacks might see it fall still further. This government is exceptionally hostile to the BBC and appears to want to bring it to heel, to make it self-censor when reporting anything the government is seriously sensitive about.

What does all this all mean for children and their education and values? In divided societies, children learn to hate the ‘other’ community - Jews, Catholics or Protestants, Muslims, Democrats or Republicans, blacks or whites – at an early age. We’re arguing that public service media are at the heart of countering these dangers by fostering social cohesion and the development of a tolerant, well-informed, less credulous nation where all the talents get developed.  So we need strong, properly funded public service media. And we also have to put media literacy on the curriculum to avoid ending up like the USA, especially given children’s reliance on social media.

The UK national press is acknowledged as the most raucously partisan in Europe.[10] The PSBs serve as a bulwark against their biases (which is why the papers falsely accuse the BBC, in particular, of bias every day!). Accurate, impartial trusted broadcast news means that we have at least a chance of sharing the same facts and of children seeing, hearing or reading them– or hearing them discussed. If part of raising a  media literate nation is the output of PSBs - and particularly the BBC - then another is providing children with the tools to understand and decode the tsunami of media (including social media) information that surrounds them from the moment they start to watch, listen and read!

Who remembers the high-minded ambition – now largely abandoned -  to teach ‘civics’– the basics of British public life and institutions and how  you engage with them - in schools? And who remembers the efforts of the 1960s and 70s to teach children to ‘decode’ advertising – to make them less vulnerable to the ‘Hidden Persuaders’? We need to revisit these initiatives and update them for the 21stcentury.

In 2019, the DCMS Select Committee recommended exactly that, saying that digital literacy should be a fourth pillar of education, alongside reading, writing and maths. Reasonable people may differ on how far to take this: basic literacy and numeracy are surely even more important than – and a precursor to – media and digital literacy. But it’s disappointing that the Government, in its response, claimed that digital literacy was already being adequately covered in schools and by non-governmental initiatives so there was no need to do anything else.[11] We hope the new APPG for Media Literacy, established in November 2020, will manage to push it out of such complacency.[12]

Look at vox pops of conspiracy theory peddlers– they aren’t just old men with tinfoil hats  - and ask yourself how that happened. They often say proudly that they’ve done their own research and you wonder what the process really was and how the next generation can learn to distinguish fake news from real in their own time. How will they learn to follow leads that don’t just go down those QAnon-style cyber rabbit-holes?

Young people’s media consumption patterns are established earlier and earlier and are increasingly hard for parents to police. Between maintaining a national group of world-leading, competing public service broadcasters that supply accurate news and horizon-expanding programming, and building an education system intent on developing media and digital  literacy we can turn Gen Z into Gen Resilience – if anything, more resilient than us oldies. They’ll thank us for it.

[1] Charlie Mitchell, ‘US falls behind Mongolia in Freedom House league of civil liberties’, The Times, 25 March 2021,
[2] Spiro T Agnew, speech to the Midwest regional meeting of the Republican Party, Des Moines, Iowa, 13 November 1969.
[3] Nic Newman, Digital News Report 2020, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford University, 2020, page 88.
[4] The Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph (‘SMET’ for short).
[6]   Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire is a good guide
[9] For instance in the repeated relaunches of, and publicity for, #DefundTheBBC ‘grassroots’ (or, we think, ‘Astroturf’) campaign in the Daily Express and elsewhere. See The War Against the BBC, Chapter 14.
[11] House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Disinformation and ‘Fake News’: Final Report: Government Response to the Committee’s Eighth Report of Session 2017-19, HC 2184, 9 May 2019, pages 19-21,

What people are saying...

Discuss this article in the forums.

By Peter York and Emeritus Professor Patrick Barwise

Peter York is a ‘capitalist tool’ by background, as a market researcher (like Paddy Barwise a Patron of the Market Research Society) and management consultant. Patrick Barwise is emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School and an expert on marketing and media.

Patrick and Peter's Profile

Education Value PSM

The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)