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Broadcasting and the Public-Private Dichotomy

Neoliberalism, Citizenship and the Public Sphere


Simon Dawes


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Hardcover. xiv+239 pages. ISBN 978-3319500966. £67.99


Reviewed by Andrew Spicer

University of the West of England, Bristol





A concern with the function and future of public service broadcasting (PSB) has been a major preoccupation with academics, policy makers and the public in the UK as well as throughout Europe and is an issue of great moment within the broadcasting industry itself. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have been under intense scrutiny recently: the BBC throughout the negotiations for its charter renewal in 2016 and Channel 4 as it prepares to move out of London and increase its regional presence. Such specific issues form part of a broader anxiety about the impact of the rapid and far-reaching technological changes associated with the ‘digital revolution’, notably the rise of pay-TV and on-demand viewing and the emergence of rich and powerful new players, webcasters such as Netflix or Amazon, which bypass the normal modes of distribution and exhibition and are completely unaccountable. These are not solely media industry preoccupations. PSB has also always been the locus of debates about citizenship, state control and the responsibilities of broadcasters to pursue a range of political, social and cultural objectives, the value of whose work is not solely economic; the current changes have only served to intensify the importance and urgency of these issues.  

There is every reason, therefore, to welcome Simon Dawes’s ambitious and assiduous study of PSB in the UK – and by implication more generally – not in terms of content and programming but in how it is regulated. Dawes offers his monograph as a “supplement to the more traditional histories of broadcasting regulation” [201] through its sustained attempt to rethink the theoretical and methodological bases by which we understand PSB. Throughout this complex but rewarding study, Dawes worries away at the dominant assumptions on which broadcasting regulation has been understood, especially the binary opposition between, on the one side, public service, citizenship and the public sphere, and on the other competition, consumption and neoliberalism. Deploying a Foucauldian ‘genealogical’ perspective in which history is understood as a series of overlapping and unresolved ‘problematizations’ [9], Dawes reconceives this relationship as ‘protean and mobile’, a chain of ‘discontinuous and heterogeneous constructions that co-exist’ [33] rather than a static polarisation. He explores whether the conventional public-private dichotomy is indeed the most appropriate and effective framework within which to mount a critical history of broadcasting regulation in the UK. And in the process his study attempts that most difficult of tasks, what Foucault (in Discipline and Punish) referred to as a ‘history of the present’, in other words finding perspectives that will enable critical reflection rather than a foreshortened and inevitably ephemeral description of current debates.

Structurally, the book is divided into four sections. Part I [chapters 1 and 2] sets out the approach, discussing the theory and methodology and its use of Foucault. Part II [chapters 3-5] examines the central concepts in Broadcasting Regulation: the Public Sphere, Citizenship and Consumption, and Neoliberalism; Part III [chapters 6-8] looks in greater and more specific detail at broadcasting regulation structured as three overlapping problematizations – political, socio-cultural and economic; Part IV [chapters 9-12] explores the shifting dynamics of the public-private dichotomy.

Chapter 3, for instance, offers a characteristically thorough, thoughtful and trenchant account of the debates that surround the public sphere rather than plumping for one paradigm. In Chapter 4, Dawes explores private / public dichotomies that are typically framed as citizenship versus consumption. By contrast, his account is alert to the potential productiveness of alternative perspectives such as ‘prosumers’ and the evolution of a ‘critical consumerism’ as a politically contested field or of ‘civic mindedness’ as an emerging “political site for collective mobilization” [89]. Dawes thus conceptualises ‘citizens’ and ‘consumers’ as problematic terms rather than known entities and is careful to explore emerging concepts such as ‘voice’ [chapter 10] that enables analysis to go beyond the public-private dichotomy and which reconceptualises the nature of citizenship.

Chapter 6 offers a valuable discussion of the shifting terms of debate about PSB as the unresolved tension between public control and private enterprise which is charted as the discursive shift from ‘public control’, through ‘public service’ and ‘public interest’ to the present dominant paradigm of ‘public value’, as manifested in the ‘public value test’ [125ff]. In a rare instance of direct commentary on a current instance, Dawes explores how the key term in the BBC’s own self-presentation in the run-up to charter renewal was through its ‘distinctiveness’ rather than any self-assurance that it speaks for the nation. One of the most valuable sections is his discussion of neoliberalism in chapter 5, given the ubiquity with which the term is invoked as an explanation of the current ‘crisis’ in media provision.* Dawes’s analysis affords an understanding of the complexity of a concept that shifts and changes over time and which is heterogeneous and contradictory. He brings Foucault’s concept of ‘governmentality’ to bear on this debate, giving close attention to an analysis of ‘actually existing’ neoliberalism as a discursive process and the ways in which spaces open up in which the state could play a new role.

This, to my mind, is the book’s great strength that it constantly returns us to those deeper and wider issues within which the pressing problems of the role and function of PSB are situated. This is a study that offers the critical tools to make a sustained and detailed analysis of media policy and regulation rather than provide that analysis itself. It is not, therefore either an easy read or one that could be recommended unhesitatingly to students. Dawes himself seems to recognise that this is not a book for the faint-hearted and offers [19] some different orderings in which it could be read depending on the reader’s particular interests. That might encourage a more selective approach to the study that could cater to student needs. Overall, the study could, I think, without diluting the strength of the arguments, have been more engagingly written by avoiding or lessening the obsessive citation of extant literature in virtually every sentence. Perhaps this is an effect of use of in-text referencing rather than footnotes, but there were numerous instances where a lighter touch would have been welcome. This relatively minor caveat aside, for those engaged in thinking about the role of PSB and of the issues and frameworks within which it is embedded, Dawes’s monograph provides an important and highly distinctive contribution.


*Dawes has some revealing statistics [96-97] about the frequency and the sheer volume of analyses.



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