Manuel Castells and the Phenomenal Communicative Power of the BBC

Manuel Castells’ book Communicative Power provides a theory of the Communicative Power of media organisations. Castells writes that ‘power is primarily exercised by the construction of meaning in the human mind through processes of communication enacted in global/local multimedia networks of mass communication, including self-communication’. In light of the Nadine Dorries’ decision to remove some £2 billion pounds of funding from the BBC over the next six years, it is important that we are able to conceptualise the significance of the BBC towards the local, national and international media. The ideas found in Castells’ Communicative Power exemplify the extraordinary success of the BBC in accumulating Communicative and Network power. Moreover the removal of £2 billion pounds would serve to damage the quality of content created, damage the BBC’s reputation as the world’s leading independent broadcaster, weaken the BBC’s positions as the world’s most popular site for international news, weaken the companies networking power, reduce the amount of UK focused content, damage the BBC’s position as a gatekeeper, erode a sense of British national identity and reduce the United Kingdom’s communicative power. With all things considered, Nadine Dorries’ policy of removing £2 billion pounds from the BBC is one of the worst policies of living memory.

Significance of the BBC within the Modern Media Infrastructure

Manuel Castells illustrates three major factors that explain the BBC’s significance within the global media infrastructure. Firstly, Castells stresses the BBC’s tradition and reputation as the world’s greatest independent broadcaster. Secondly, Castell’s emphasises the BBC’s ability to set the international news agenda. Thirdly, Castells talks about the importance of a Media organisations ability to build networks.

Castells stresses the independence of the BBC is of central importance towards its success writing that ‘the BBC has been hailed around the world as a model of a public corporation asserting its independence from direct government interference, although some acts by the Blair government tarnished this image without destroying the reputation of the BBC as a reference for independent public media around the world.’. Therefore, Castells says that the BBC is one of the world’s greatest independent media organisation, yet emphasises that this reputation is based on the condition that the BBC isn’t politicised by the government. Government Minister Nadine Dorries’ attempts to withdraw funding from the BBC on account of their ‘very-left wing, often hypocritical and frequently patronising views’, demonstrate the Government actively attempting to politicise the BBC hence abusing the company’s independence. Given that the BBC has built conditions that have allowed the largely right-wing movement of Brexit and then the election of the largest Tory government since 1979, the accusation of Britain’s largest media organisation being left wing are completely without evidence. In turn, from my experience working with Extinction Rebellion, I am aware that the BBC are routinely subject to a lot of criticism of being right wing. Therefore, Nadine Dorries’ attempts at political government interference and withdrawal of £2 billion pounds of funding over the next six years, threaten the BBC’s capability and reputation as one of the world’s greatest independent media organisations.

The BBC is an extraordinary asset for the United Kingdom. Castells’ book emphasises that one of the greatest powers the BBC provides Britain is the ability to set the international news agenda. Castells writes that ‘studies by Van Belle and Golan demonstrate that ‘global media’ corporations depend on key elite publications (that they do not own) to set their news agenda’s.’ Castells includes the BBC, along with the New York Times, Al Jazeera and The Economist as key towards setting the international news agenda. This gives the BBC the editorial power of selecting which news is worth reading and how to frame the world’s most important news stories. Smaller organisations throughout the planet, Golan gives the examples of CBS, NBC and ABC in regard to the New York Times, will then follow the BBC’s editorial and framing decisions. The communicative power accumulated by the BBC and therefore the British people, can be measured in part through the popularity of the news website. Writing in 2009, Castells mentions that the BBC is the most visited News Web site in the world being visited by ‘over 46 million visitors per month, 60% originating from outside the UK’, 11 years later and the BBC is still the world’s most popular news site with 1.1 billion visitors in December 2021. The communicative power obtained by the BBC is by no means guaranteed. While the Daily Mail (375.2 million visitors in December 2021) and the Guardian (302.5 million visitors in December 2021) offer very impressive agenda setting capabilities, the BBC is more than three times more popular than them both. To have an independent state funded news site that is more popular than every other media organisation on the planet, MSN, CNN, Google, the New York Times, India Times and Buzzfeed, is extraordinary and comparable to America’s greatest companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft. As a publicly owned British Broadcaster the BBC may well be the world’s claim to the spiritual home of the English Language. The withdrawal of £2 billion pounds over the next six years, for political excuses without evidence, will serve to dilute Britain’s greatest source of communicative power and weaken our nation. Following the infrastructural domination of the Internet and the political result of Brexit, it is absurd that we would think about divesting in our greatest source of communicative power particularly when we have been so impotent in conceptualising the problems created and the power devolved to major Silicon Valley Technology Companies. Nadine Dorries is fighting the wrong fight at the worst moment for our nation.

Much of the BBC’s significance to the world’s media infrastructure is based on the companies infrastructural and social network. Castells writes about the networking conditions needed to build a successful media organisation: ‘media networks do not exist in a vacuum. Their success is dependent on their ability to successfully leverage connections to other critical networks in finance, technology, cultural industries, advertising industries, suppliers of content, regulatory agencies, and political crises at large.’ And that ‘connections to writers, actors, performers, and other creative professionals are also essential for the success of media business. In the United States alone, the network of agents for artists, athletes and entertainers is a $6 billion a year industry’. The BBC has managed to build profoundly successful networks through local, national and international networks. They have the ability to harness and attract the best media talent, thus harnessing and supporting the best media networks. The strength of the BBC’s social networking is well demonstrated through music. BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend has managed to bring the world’s biggest musicians to some of the most prosaic and unlikely areas of the United Kingdom. Radio 1’s Big Weekend bought Billie Eilish to Middlesborough, Rihanna to Bangore and Bruno Mars to Derry. The BBC’s radio presenters and music infrastructure, not adversely effected by the need to secure advertising revenue, has allowed them to experiment with DJ’s that are willing to pioneer new Artists, helping launch the careers of Britain’s biggest stars like Ed Sheeran, Little Sims, George Ezra, Florence and the Machine, The Glass Animals, Bombay Bicycle Club and Loyle Carner, whilst also helping popularise and define entire music genres like Grime and Dubstep. In 2019 the UK music industry was worth £5.8 billion to the United Kingdom and music tourism responsible for adding £4.7 billion. The BBC, due to it’s communicative power, infrastructural and social networks, is arguably the United Kingdom’s most important platform for the safeguarding and continuation of this multibillion pound industry. Withdrawing £2 billion pounds from the BBC in the next six years may well serve to weaken these networks creating losses of billions of pounds for other industries in the United Kingdom.

The Importance of the BBC’s Business Model Towards it’s Communicative Power

Castells highlights two ideas that explain the communicative power of the BBC: Firstly, the BBC’s position as a broadcaster created for and funded by the British people. Secondly, the importance of the BBC’s protection from the pursuit of advertising funds.

Unlike Cadbury, Jaguar Land Rover and Asda, the BBC is a British company which is owned by the people of the United Kingdom. This is of great importance because it acts as a normative incentive towards the strengthening of local, national and international British connections and prioritises and harnesses British talent, be it musicians, writers, journalists, broadcasters, actors or directors. The BBC builds an infrastructure with the view of building the whole nation. By contrast, Castells highlights that many major national media organisations are owned by foreign media conglomerates. For instance, Murdoch and News Corporation, founded in Australia, make 53% of it’s revenue from the United States and 32% from Europe. Some Europe’s largest national media organisation are owned by ‘multiple corporations from multiple nations’. Germany’s Vox is 49.5% owned by News Corporation, France’s Canal Plus is 24.9% owned by News Corporation and Germany’s Bertelsmann owned 24.9% by News Corporation. Were the BBC to be privatised in any way it would have to adapt its business model towards foreign companies and foreign interests thus compromising the focus on training and publicising the UK’s best talent and attracting and building the UK’s strongest media networks thus eroding the national character, identity and communicative power.

Castells emphasis on the importance of television in creating national identity, emphsises the harm Nadine Dorries’ policy threatens towards the UK. Castells describes work by Tubella that ‘has shown the decisive importance of television in constructing national identity under the conditions of cultural domination by another nation, as revealed by the important example of Catalan television in Spain after the post-Franco democratic regime’. The BBC’s superior ability in comparison with platforms like Netflix and Amazon to offer content that focuses on the United Kingdom and creates a sense of national identity is demonstrated through the House of Common’s select committee report on The Future of Public Service Broadcasting which found that ‘in 2019, public service broadcasters provided approximately 32,000 hours of UK originated content, whereas Netflix and Amazon Prime combined provide 164 hours’. Therefore, the removal of funding will weaken the BBC’s ability to make high quality British content and encourage viewers to replace British television and British culture with whatever the American streaming services provide.

One of the greatest advantages towards the BBC’s license fee subscription model is that it protects the company from the relentless effort of pursuing advertising funds. Castells writes that ‘Advertising is the backbone of global and local media business networks. Thus, it is present everywhere, in all cultural patterns and uses all platforms, from television and radio to the internet and mobile phones. It is through advertising that the culture of commodification, at the heart of global capitalism, influences all cultural expressions and their media support’. The BBC is protected from the uglier sides of the market through public ownership. This gives the BBC the ability to make more adventurous, creative, and frankly, better content. Dependence on advertising funds would strategize the BBC advertising model towards creating content through websites, podcasts, television, music, radio, sport and film that generates the most amount of attention. This data would then be sold to advertisers. Given that the BBC media infrastructure is central towards the creative and governance infrastructure of the United Kingdom a reliance upon advertising funds may serve to destroy this national infrastructure. Areas of the BBC that provide crucially important functions may fail to attract enough attention. In pursuit of advertising funds, we may never have heard Dubstep, Grime, Ed Sheeran, Little Simz or Loyle Carner. In pursuit of advertising funds, we may never have seen The Office, I May Destroy You, Killing Eve or People Just Do Nothing. In pursuit of advertising funds, the songs and stories that have changed or defined people’s lives may have never been created. In pursuit of advertising funds, Britain may have never built their own culture and just been America’s biggest fan.

The BBC’s independence is ensured through safety from the state and safety from the market. The permanence and consistency of the license fee has given the BBC a hundred years to perfect and adapt the media ecosystem developing and upholding the highest standards of normative media goals like truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. The BBC sets the tone for the rest of the world’s media infrastructure. The BBC is powerful throughout the world because it produces high quality content, upholding and setting the moral and ethical standards of the media landscape.

Conclusion

Manuel Castells book Communicative Power accentuates that the BBC is one of if not the world’s greatest media organisation. The communicative power accumulated through the BBC is of central importance towards Britain’s local, national and international identity and reputation. Safeguarded from foreign ownership and advertising investment, the BBC has the safety to experiment with contemporary culture, pioneering music genre’s, musicians, television, film and journalism, at the same time as setting the normative ethical standards for the world’s media. Nadine Dorries’ attempts at politicisation and divestment will serve to deathly weaken our nation in a variety of ways. If the BBC is too left wing how did the country vote for Brexit and the largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1979? The English Language is surely our countries greatest export and the BBC may well be its spiritual home. The greatest threats to a Conservative government will not and has not come from the BBC, it will come from failing to understand the importance the BBC plays in peoples lives on the local, national and international stage.

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