Watching what we watch

An event on 'media literacy' gave a glimpse into the twilight world of Ofcom, the UK media regulator.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

‘Literacy’ is commonly understood as the ability to read and write, which is acquired as a key stage in child development. But what do the terms ‘media literacy’, ’emotional literacy’ and ‘political literacy’ mean? And why is the UK’s media regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom), so keen on promoting them?

Ofcom is a new type of media regulator, seeing its mission as to foster a more diverse media and assist us in interpreting the media, rather than to ban things because they’re immoral or seditious, as an old-fashioned censor might do. Under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a ‘duty to promote media literacy’, which is defined as a duty ‘to bring about…a better public understanding’ of the media (1).

This remit was motivated chiefly by an anxiety, on the part of an isolated political elite, that the media enjoys greater public influence than politicians do (see ‘Communication ethics’ and the new censorship, by Sandy Starr). One of Ofcom’s central functions is to rein in this influence, failing which to measure and understand it.

As an initial step, Ofcom has conducted a public consultation on media literacy, and formulated a concise definition of the term: ‘Media literacy is the ability to access, understand and create communications in a variety of contexts.’ But this is little more than a rough description of what it is to be a human being.

If we wish to understand what Ofcom really means, we must look beyond fuzzy definitions to the regulator’s claims that ‘media literate people will be able to exercise informed choices about content and services’ (2). ‘Choice’ has become a recurring mantra in the pronouncements and initiatives of officialdom, in particular ‘informed choice’, which is a recipe for imposing officially sanctioned values upon people (see ‘Informed choice’ is no choice at all, by Brendan O’Neill).

This promotion of officially sanctioned values under the heading of ‘choice’ was evident at an event hosted by Ofcom at its London offices this week, called ‘Emotional and Political Literacy and the Media’. One of the speakers was Annette Hill, professor of media studies at the University of Westminster, who presented research into the emotional responses of TV viewers to ‘popular factual television programmes’ (that’s reality TV to you and me). Her research provided fewer insights into the public than into the preoccupations and prejudices of Ofcom’s circle.

Hill looked at children’s reactions to programmes such as Animal Hospital and Animal ER, focusing on ‘acute suffering – pet death’. She contrasted the fact that children are distressed by seeing animals suffering and dying, with the fact that their parents sometimes think there may be some educational value in the spectacle. Hill implied that the children were in some ways savvier than the parents, for recognising that these sorts of programmes are emotionally exploitative.

The idea of the media savvy child was a recurring theme during the day’s proceedings. The speakers seemed less comfortable analysing adults’ emotional reactions, which tended to be more opaque and less susceptible to the terminology of media, emotional and political literacy.

For example, another strand of Hill’s research concerned ‘life experiment programmes’ such as Wife Swap, Faking It, and Trust Me, I’m a Teenager. Hill was concerned that despite these shows’ rich emotional conflicts, ‘I had a huge resistance to discussing these programmes in any way related to learning’ – she even concluded that ‘Wife Swap acts as a barrier to learning’. Many of her interviewees thought of Wife Swap and its ilk as ‘just entertainment’, which she said ‘is a really negative phrase to be applying to popular factual programmes’. For those of us not immersed in Hill’s jargonised world, it would come as no surprise to learn that people watch Wife Swap for entertainment rather than to improve their media literacy.

Hill also criticised Wife Swap‘s viewers for looking down upon the individuals who feature in the programme – she spoke disparagingly of the ’emotionally superior position of the viewer’, and argued that such an attitude ‘acts as a barrier to people discussing their emotional learning’.

Other speakers included James Park, director of Antidote, the campaign for emotional literacy, and his colleague Barry Richards, professor of public communication at Bournemouth University. Antidote’s definition of emotional literacy is ‘the practice of thinking individually and collectively about how emotions shape our actions, and of using emotional understanding to enrich our thinking’ (3). Meanwhile, Richards defined ‘political literacy’ as ‘the capacity to be an effective citizen’, which he linked to the government’s project of fostering ‘citizenship’, and to the introduction of citizenship as a subject on the national curriculum.

Park and Richards showed a video recording of six-year-old pupils in east London discussing the question ‘Is Africa a free country?’ (itself a politically illiterate question since Africa is a continent, but that was apparently part of the point of the exercise). The children’s emotionally literate teacher sat with them in a circle, inviting them to contrast and reflect on the differing accounts of Africa in a picture book they had just read, in items they had seen on the news, and that they had received from members of their family.

While this might be a useful exercise for getting children to think about the world, how it constituted an emotional education escaped me. But what was disturbing was Richards’ assertion that the video demonstrated a valid model for fostering political understanding in general. Here we see the infantilisation of the public that lies at the heart of projects to promote new forms of literacy.

Richards’ claim that the children’s exercise was ‘turning them into an active political force’ revealed a lack of imagination as to what ‘an active political force’ might be – robust and confrontational for a start, rather than a tentative exchange of ill-formed thoughts. Richards complained that contemporary politics is ‘disorienting’, and leaves people feeling ‘ignorant and incompetent’. But surely the solution would be to offer people political ideas of substance and appeal, rather than seek to conduct politics according to an emotional etiquette?

When I questioned the usefulness of the categories ‘media literacy’, ‘political literacy’ and ’emotional literacy’, Hill responded by suggesting that ‘we need more types of literacy’, covering every aspect of life and learning. But what we really need is for the once meaningful category of ‘literacy’ to be left well alone, before it dissolves further into a sea of meaningless Ofcomspeak.

Park and Richards acknowledged the concern that these new forms of literacy could become an insidious means of seeking to engineer people’s ideas and behaviour. They argued that the pursuit of emotional and political literacy is no authoritarian conspiracy, but rather a ‘process’, an ongoing, open-ended affair. Yet this just demonstrated how slippery and difficult to pin down these new literacy projects are. Vagueness is a convenient means of avoiding being held to account for one’s interests and objectives.

In conclusion, Ofcom’s media literacy manager Robin Blake admitted that ‘there is no clear and agreed definition of media literacy – we have chosen words that serve our purpose, and you will choose words that will serve yours’. The association forming in my mind between Ofcom’s imposing, white-corridored Southwark offices and the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984 was not dispelled by Blake’s closing request: ‘If you have any evidence of the way people are behaving, do let us know.’

Ofcom will continue devoting considerable resources to researching a public it cannot get the measure of, in much the same way as a puzzled laboratory scientist might conduct endless tests upon a mysterious species of rat. Indeed, the regulator now plans ‘to complete an audit of media literacy skills across the UK’ – although how one could audit such an ill-defined construct is anyone’s guess (4).

What should give us greatest cause for concern is Ofcom’s statutory duty, once it has decided to its satisfaction what media literacy is and how much of it we possess already, to inculcate it in us – assisted, no doubt, by literacy campaigns such as Antidote and numerous academics who know a good source of research funding when they see one. The best way of expressing our political literacy would be to tell them where to stick it.

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Topics Politics


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